Floods have become increasingly frequent in large Latin American cities, probably due to the effects of global warming and also to local factors, such as the extensive areas of concrete and asphalt that have replaced vegetation.
Extreme weather events are aggravating inequality “in a Latin America that has the most inequitable societies in the world,” said engineer Manuel Rodríguez, professor emeritus at the Universidad de los Andes who served as Colombia’s first minister of environment and sustainable development (1993-1996).
“The poorest of the poor live in shantytowns and slums in the areas most vulnerable to environmental risks, on undevelopable land along riverbanks or in the foothills,” where they are tragically affected by floods and landslides, he explained.
This is especially important in Latin America, the world’s most urban region, where one in five people live in cities
.A good part of the 1.28 million inhabitants of the “favelas” or shantytowns of São Paulo, according to the 2010 official census, live on low-lying land, often along streams, without sanitation, and they are the first victims of floods. The poor make up 11 percent of the population of São Paulo proper.
In Rio de Janeiro there are also riverside favelas, but the ones built on hillsides or on the tops of hills that separate the city and some neighborhoods are much better known. The risk in these areas is landslides, which have killed many people.
In Brazil’s second largest city, favelas are home to 1.39 million people, 22 percent of the total population, according to the 2010 census.
Lima, which has 10 million inhabitants, and other cities in Peru and Ecuador were victims of El Niño Costero, a climatic phenomenon that warms the waters of the Pacific Ocean but only near these two countries, where it also leads to more intense rainfall.
These and other Andean countries also face the threat of melting glaciers that could deprive the population of the Andes highlands of water, said Rodríguez. In the Caribbean, the biggest threat is hurricanes, which are becoming more frequent and more intense.
These phenomena hit the poor harder in Latin America, in the world’s most unequal region the poor have fewer resources to overcome the losses caused by the climate crisis, added the Colombian expert.
“Buying a new refrigerator and other appliances damaged each time it floods costs them much more. Poverty is a cause, driving them to disaster, and also a consequence of the disasters themselves,” said Guimarães, a former knowledge management coordinator at UN Habitat, the UN agency for human settlements.
The real estate business drives up the costs of the best, safest sites complete with infrastructure and services. There are too many at-risk areas where the poor “build their homes with their own hands,” without the support of a public policy that ensures them housing with “access to the city,” she told IPS.
Pushed to the periphery, where land is cheaper, but there are no jobs or public services, nor urbanization, the poor prefer slums near the center
“There is a spatial inequality that results from the low-density expansion model of cities, which pushes low-income families to the periphery, makes access to public transportation difficult and requires long commutes,” said Pablo Lazo, director of Urban Development and Accessibility at the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Mexico.
This urbanization model also gives rise to shantytowns in risky areas, “a constant pattern that is repeated in Mexico City, whose eastern neighborhoods are built on hillsides, where water runs off very quickly, fueling landslides,” he said in an interview with IPS via video call from the Mexican capital. Greater Mexico City is home to nearly 20 million people.
Lazo highlighted the need for mechanisms to control the market’s “greed”, such as a requirement that private housing projects include low-cost units.
“In France that proportion is 50 percent,” he said, to illustrate.
Braga said one good possibility for reducing the housing deficit in Rio de Janeiro would be by allocating empty public buildings to social housing. There are many unused state-owned buildings because the city was the capital of the country until 1960.