Tragedy Strikes in Rio as Rain Leaves Over 100 Dead

rescuers in mudslide photo
Photos: REUTERS / Sergio Moraes

Between 8pm Monday night and 8am yesterday morning, almost twice as much rain fell on Rio de Janeiro than was expected for the entire month of April. Early reports have yet to assess the total number of casualties brought about by this highly unusual weather, but currently the death toll stands at over 100, with many more injured. The rains have collapsed buildings, triggered mudslides, and flooded thoroughfares. Thousands are left homeless. Officials have scrambled to maintain order, but as the rain continues to fall, some are beginning to wonder if climate change is to blame.Rio's Poor are the Hardest Hit
The governor of Rio, Sergio Cabral, says that the biggest losses of life were due to mudslides in the city's poor, hillside communities, called favelas. In these regions, building regulations are virtually nonexistent and addressing safety concerns is difficult. Cabral criticized past administrations "who, by demagogy allowed in the past, high-risk areas to be occupied."

According to authorities, many other hillsides in Rio face a similar threat of landslides.

rio mudslide photo
Photo: Antonio Scorza
Rain Holds the City Hostage
As streets flooded, traveling through the city became impossible for some. Many people who were unable to return home slept in their offices and shops. Cabral urged citizens to stay home yesterday, which is being credited for saving lives since rescue personnel could move more quickly through the remaining passable roadways.

Still, thousands are without power as emergency workers continue to sift through the mud for survivors. Officials are calling for vigilance as Brazil's National Meteorological Institute reports that the forecast is for more rain.

What to Make of All the Extreme Weather?
Weather extremes in Brazil have become a reality in recent years, as the country has faced record-breaking rains in some regions and long, devastating droughts in others. Often, when such unusual weather struck in years past, El Niño was assigned the blame. But this most recent storm is occurring after this year's El Niño had passed with average intensity.

After experiencing the latest round of extreme weather, some in Brazil wonder if this may be symptomatic of climate change. Ambiente Brasil, in posing the question "Who is to blame for the tragedy today in Rio?", sites climate expert Alexandre Mansur of Revista Época:

Now, it is good to prepare as extreme events may become more frequent in the coming years. Significant effects of climate change (when weather patterns become unrecognizable) will only begin from 2020. But already in this decade we will have, according to researchers, extraordinary events will become commonplace. The records that held every 20 years and marked a generation, begin to repeat themselves more regularly. It's a good reason to stop the construction in inappropriate places.

woman cleans after flood photo
Photo: REUTERS / Bruno Domingos
A Problem on the Rise
As population growth continues to skyrocket, and the world's rural communities are forced to migrate into already crowded urban centers, the devastation and loss of life from extreme weather will only be compounded. In the case of Brazil, where the populations of some cities have doubled in just a few decades, there is little in the way of infrastructure to handle the rapid influx. As a result, favelas crowd the hillsides deemed unsafe for traditional construction.

In other parts of the world, climate refugees face a twofold threat from changes in weather patterns. Whole rural communities, once able to survive by farming the land, are forced by poverty and malnutrition into cities as their crops wither in the grip of desertification. They fair little better in these urban centers where access to basic resources becomes strained from overcrowding.

So, as Rio de Janeiro works in the rain to shelter the living and bury the dead, all victims of this latest batch of extreme weather, some may prefer to call such tragedies 'natural disasters'. But, as even the slightest investigation into precursors of such events would suggest, there might be nothing 'natural' about it at all. The time for being humbled by the mysterious forces of weather are over. Rather, it is our own influence over the planet's climate that should have us humbled--humbled and concerned.

With reporting from Correio Braziliense.
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