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Torrential rains and floods displace 156,000 people in southern Brazil
China Daily
2024-05-10 10:12

Southern Brazil is reeling from massive floods caused by days of heavy rainfall, with the natural disaster causing unprecedented devastation and leaving the region struggling to cope. Observers say the true impact of the floods that have displaced more than 156,000 people and affected more than 1.3 million is not likely to be known for weeks.

The floods have wreaked havoc across nearly 350 out of 497 cities in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, critically damaging infrastructure, including roads, bridges and causing the partial collapse of a dam at a hydroelectric plant. More than 100 people are known to have been killed and at least 131 are still missing, according to information from the civil defense force involved in disaster relief.

President Inacio Lula da Silva, commonly known as Lula, declared a state of emergency, echoing the sentiments of Rio Grande do Sul Governor Eduardo Leite, who ominously predicted a substantial rise in the death toll as rescue missions expand their reach, and said the "scenes are out of a war", in comments over the weekend.

"We … knew that heavy and intense rains would come, but we never imagined this magnitude," Marcelo Schneider, a meteorologist and district coordinator for Meteorology for southern Brazil at the National Institute of Meteorology (Inmet), told China Daily.

"The warnings were there," Schneider said. "One of the main factors is the intersection of two events: the El Nino and La Nina phenomena."

While heavy rain is not unusual in this part of Brazil, the sheer amount that fell over the past few days has been historic.

Inmet first alerted about upcoming heavy rains on April 26, warning of 100 mm of rain over the following weekend and winds in excess of 70 km/h. MetSul Meteorologica, a meteorological monitoring entity, also warned of severe risks of flooding. In the last few days of the month, the state received roughly 70 percent of the rain it usually receives in whole month, and the downpours continued into May.

"Despite improvements in parts of the state, some areas will remain under severe conditions for a very long time," MetSul said in a statement, noting that the waters had changed the urban landscape of Porto Alegre, the largest city in the Rio Grande do Sul state.

Inmet warned this week that rains would continue in the southernmost part of the state, with the downpour likely to exceed 150 mm by the morning of April 8 in some areas.

Authorities are now worried about drinking water running out.

It may have been "the worst meteorological catastrophe" in the state's history, said Paulo Pimenta, Lula's press secretary.

Robson Cardoch Valdez, an economist and professor of international relations at the Brazilian Institute of Education, Development and Research, said the ramifications of this natural disaster extend beyond the immediate threat to lives.

Valdez, who works as an advisor to the Rio Grande do Sul government, suggested that the economic tremors of the devastation could ripple through the country for years, particularly in sectors like agriculture and oil production.

The floods have disrupted business operations, with some airports suspending flights and train services also disrupted. The extensive damage to infrastructure means a laborious and costly road to recovery.

"Once the water recedes, it will be possible to have a more specific (idea) of the economic impact of the rain, but … at this moment we are only working with estimates … to assist in everything necessary to rebuild the physical structure of Rio Grande do Sul," Valdez told China Daily.

The rebuilding could take some time. More rain is expected in the coming days and could get heavy again between May 10 and 15, according to MetSul.

Adding to the complexity of the recovery, Rio Grande do Sul, a key agricultural hub, is bracing for a spike in the prices of staple crops and potential inflationary pressures on food products as a result of the floods.

Valdez highlighted the anticipated impact on agriculture, an industry critical to Rio Grande do Sul state and Brazil as a whole. The floods will likely impact crop production and livestock rearing and are expected to lead to an uptick in the prices of rice, corn, tomatoes and beef, among other staples.

The expected inflation, coupled with the costs associated with the extensive rebuilding of the state's physical infrastructure, presents a multifaceted challenge for federal and state authorities.

The massive floods came just seven months after an extratropical cyclone hit the region with heavy rains that caused floods and killed dozens.

The writer is a freelance journalist for China Daily.


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