Domestic worker Ana Paula Nascimento, 35, had borrowed R$1,000 (US$194) from her relatives to buy land. Over four years, her house came together, a property with a living room, terrace, kitchen, bathroom and three bedrooms. She paid back the loan in several installments. Her home was the only material possession she had in her name.
She no longer has it. The property in Brazil’s Recife collapsed in the last week of May this year, leaving her husband, three children, and her homeless. It was invaded by mud, just like other houses in Vila dos Milagres, a Brazilian slum, commonly known as favela in Brazil.
The house collapsed after five days of intermittent rains in the city. “My husband heard some thuds and shouted: ‘run, the barrier is coming’. We got out, jumped over the wall, and looked back —I couldn’t see my house. It was just mud”, she says. The barrier that Nascimento refers to, is a sand or clay hill.
With the beginning of the rainy season in the region comes fear. While it rains every year between the months of May and August, in 2022, the situation was different. This was the heaviest rainfall recorded in the last 50 years in Recife, the city where Nascimento lives.
“I always knew of situations where houses were destroyed after the barriers collapsed with the force of the water. But in the 12 years I have lived here, I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Nascimento, who is now occupying a borrowed property while she looks for a new home to rent.
The family was left homeless, along with 9,000 other people in the state where they live. In 20 days, Pernambuco totaled 128.000 people homeless and displaced, that is, who lost their homes permanently or temporarily.
With heavy landslides here, almost 130 people died this year. The intensity of rains and the extent of destruction it caused was a first for the region.
Experts in ocean movements, climate change, architecture and urbanism, who investigated the area, state that Recife is the city most threatened by the advance of the sea level in Brazil.
Despite being at the forefront of the creation of strategic reports against climate change, the experts reiterate that the city still fails to protect the most vulnerable population from its impacts. This includes the strange phenomenon of this year, where the volume of rainfall was much higher than expected.
The threatened city
Ana Paula Nascimento lives in Recife, the first Brazilian capital to acknowledge a state of global climate emergency and draw up a risk analysis and adaptation strategies plan. According to the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the advancing sea levels make Recife Brazil’s most threatened city, and the world’s 16th most at risk.
This threat and risk is due to several reasons. Recife is a coastal city in the Northeast region, which has an average altitude of four meters above sea level. It is bathed by the Atlantic Ocean and also intersected by three river basins — that of Capibaribe, Beberibe and Tejipió.
“These three basins join together and receive sea water twice a day, which we call tide. In some parts of the city, the tide rises so much that even without rain, water springs up in some streets in the city”, explains Professor Roberto Montezuma from the Department of Architecture and Urbanism at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE).
Mila Avellar Montezuma, a researcher in Sustainable Urban Waters Management and Climate Resilient Cities mentions that the river and the sea are integral to the origin of the city’s territory. “Recife is an amphibious city, whose DNA is aqua centric,” she adds.
According to her, the rate of sea level rise has accelerated by 3.8 millimetres per year along the coast. Together with other phenomena, this has caused several areas of the city to sink.
In addition, 45.7% of the coastline of Recife is in a high vulnerability zone. This means that the region will be quickly affected by the change in sea level. Moreover, the frequency of rainfall and other extreme weather events seems to be increasing.
Researcher Montezuma also adds that the projected increase in the risk of flooding by 2040 is 68.44%, but the increase in the frequency and intensity of rainfall is already identified today by local researchers.
“Like every year, this year too, we had the action of a cyclical phenomenon, La Niña [characterized by cold ocean temperatures and intense rainfall]. While this has caused historic flooding in 1966 and 1975, what made it different this year was that an increased temperature is causing a higher evaporation rate. A system that was cyclical is now gaining more strength,” explains Marcus Silva, professor of the Department of Oceanography and coordinator of the Center for Advanced Studies at the Federal University of Pernambuco.
The main problem is not the volume of rain, but the rain reaching the city. “This excessive load cannot be absorbed by the drainage system in time which is not designed to manage such large volumes. The result: flooding in the lowlands and landslides on the hills, with countless human losses. City planning in the last two decades has neglected the climate,” says researcher Mila Avellar Montezuma.
Climate refugees in Recife
Recife is a plain surrounded by hills ranging in height from 60 to 80 meters which used to be covered by Atlantic rainforest. But, over the last two centuries, the forest has been cleared to make way for houses such as Ana Paula’s.
Around 70% of the city is in hill areas, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). One third of the city’s population resides here. “The hills here are fragile, they are not made of rock. When there’s woodland, the roots help to settle the land,” explains researcher Roberto Montezuma.
For him, however, the problem is not the people, but the lack of planning in the city, which ignores the three watersheds and this composition where hills, rivers, and the sea characterize the city. “Where will you live if there is no plan for you?” he adds.
Nascimento knows what it is like to not have much choice in where to live. For her, there were only two possibilities: building a house on the side of a hill or living on the street.
“Nobody makes a house on a barrier on their own free will, because if I could, I would be in a building at the seaside,” she says. Even now, she can’t forget the images of the night she saw her residence collapse. When she remembers, she starts to cry. Her husband and son are also shaken psychologically.
Since they lost the house, Nascimento and her family have been staying at an acquaintance’s house on loan for three months. After that, she does not know where they will all go, because nobody in the house has a job to pay the rent.
The family clings to some objects found in the mud. Among them, a photo album with memories of happy moments and a wedding ring. Looking at her son, Nascimento is sure of one thing. “I can’t bear to go through this again. I’m going to look for another house, but away from a barrier,” she says.
This is also the resolution of the unemployed Letícia Nascimento, 30 years old, Ana Paula’s sister. Her house was also destroyed by the landslide. “I never thought it would happen to me. It was very painful,” she says.
Letícia had lived in the property for four years. To build the house, she had to save her salary. She went hungry, lived on the street and in the homes of acquaintances, to save money for the month and buy the building materials.
The house had only one bedroom, living room and bathroom. Since the landslide, Leticia has been staying at her mother-in-law’s house. “It had rained a lot before, but nothing like this. The rain wouldn’t stop,” she recalls, crying as she recalls the night. “We get traumatized, right? I don’t know when it will pass, but I hope it will soon,” she says.
She is also looking for a place away from the barrier. In Vila dos Milagres, there are more than 100 empty houses, says Asylan Costa, 32 years old. A resident of the place since he was born, he tried to save neighbors submerged by the mud by digging them out with his own hands.
While his house did not collapse, it remains uninhabited. “I’m not afraid, but my wife is. She saw the barrier collapse,” he says. He then sought out another property nearby, which is also close to a barrier. Even so, Asylan lives in torment. He doesn’t know whether to leave like the others, or stay.
Together with their neighbors, they have organized themselves to distribute water and food to the others. “Now it’s us for us, right?” he adds.
According to researchers Mila, Marcos and Roberto, it is necessary to include the vulnerable people of the city in the discussions about strategies to face climate change in coastal cities like Recife.
Considering that such vulnerable people are impacted the most by the climate crisis, despite contributing the least, they should be made increasingly aware of the impacts they are suffering, they said. Demanding solutions, can then be the next step.
In the worst-case scenario of rising sea levels, Recife could turn many of its residents into “climate refugees” in the coming years. At a national level, climate migration is a phenomenon that Brazil is already facing.
Mila lists the reasons: submergence of a large part of the city, losing a large percentage of its surface area, worsening of coastal erosion, salinisation of the delta, flooding of urban infrastructure, worsening of the quality of drinking water, damage to the historic and artistic heritage, impact on economic activity and transport, flooding of natural landscapes like the Mangrove Park as well as farmlands like Ilha do Zeca), amongst others.
The solution, say the researchers, is to raise awareness about the issue in all spheres, and not blame the population that has nowhere to live. “It is crucial to invest massively in research, development, and innovation focusing on protecting and adapting the city to impacts of climate change,” Mila concludes.
Marcos implies that cities need to have plans to respond and foresee such climate change scenarios. “There has to be emergency actions to remove people from the hills, while also thinking about an urbanization project for these areas, as well as a drainage project,” he suggests.