Residents of the city of Muçum in Southern Brazil could join the country’s 500,000 climate refugees

13 de maio de 2024
Idioma English

On Wednesday, May 4, muddy waters flooded the streets of Muçum, a municipality with four thousand inhabitants in Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state of Brazil. Euclides Ferreira dos Santos, 75, and his family knew what to do. They got into their cars and drove to the city’s highest point. After sleeping in their vehicles for four nights, they moved into a city shelter–where they remain to this day.

The town’s intense flooding was driven by record rainfall that overfilled the state’s waterways and caused the region’s worst climate disaster in history. More than 100 deaths have been recorded, 160,000 people are displaced, and more than 330 cities have declared a state of emergency. The rising waters surprised many, but Euclides Santos and most residents of Muçum witnessed a familiar sight. It was the third time in less than one year that extreme floods destroyed their city, homes, and dreams.

Euclides Santo’s family is now considering moving away, and the sentiment is spreading throughout the city. They could become one of Brazil’s many climate refugees–a number that surpasses 500,000 people, according to a 2021 report by the Universidad de las Américas Puebla in Mexico. The amount could increase as climate change worsens, and Brazilian cities lack resources to deal with this crisis.

Chronology of the crisis in Rio Grande do Sul

Resto de granizo após temporal no Rio Grande do Sul em 27 de abril de 2024
PORTO ALEGRE, RS, BRASIL, 29.04.2024 - Governador Eduardo Leite vai à Defesa Civil do Rio Grande do Sul, em Porto Alegre, para acompanhar a situação das chuvas no Estado.
Prefeitura de Porto Alegre a esquerda e o Mercado Municipal a direita, alagados, após chuva intensa no Rio Grande do Sul
SINIMBU, RS, BRASIL, 03.05.2024 - Sinimbu, estado da cidade, trabalho de limpeza e dos voluntários, reunião das autoridades locais.
RS, BRASIL- 5.5.2024 - Operação de resgate com o helicóptero do Corpo de Bombeiros na Região Metropolitana
April 27 to 28
April 29
April 30 to May 1
May 2 to 3
May 4 to 5
May 9
April 27 to 28

Since March, MetSul meteorological services has been warning about intense rains in April and May. On Saturday, April 27, some regions were impacted by rainfall and hail. The following day, Civil Defense agencies recorded 15 municipalities impacted

April 29

On Monday, Brazil’s National Institute of Meteorology issued a red alert due to the high volume of rainfall for half of the state. The entire territory was already under yellow and orange storm alerts, with a high risk of flooding and river overflows

April 30 to May 1

On Tuesday, Rio Grande do Sul recorded the first deaths due to the storms. On Wednesday, the death toll rose to 11. Across the state, homes, bridges and other buildings were swept away by the force of the water

May 2 to 3

On Thursday, Rio Grande do Sul declared a state of public calamity. One dam partially broke, and four others were at risk. As of Friday, 39 deaths had already been recorded

May 4 to 5

On Sunday morning, President Lula, accompanied by the presidents of the Brazilian Congress and Senate and the vice-president of the Supreme Federal Court, flew over the capital city of Porto Alegre by helicopter

May 9

The death toll reached 107 with 136 missing people. The number of people affected exceeds 1.3 million in more than 300 impacted cities. The number of displaced people exceeds 164 thousand, and there are still 67 thousand who are homeless

2023: the first floods

On September 4, 2023, the first severe flood to hit Muçum arrived unexpectedly. There was a rumor in the city that the Taquari River, which runs through the mountainous region, could overflow due to relentless rainfall. Euclides Santos and his wife Otília Vieira dos Santos, 72, were surprised when their daughter, Geniza Ferreira dos Santos, 33, arrived early from work and begged them to flee their small wooden house.

“I thought the whole thing was really silly. I’ve lived here for 40 years, and water has never entered the house,” recalls Euclides Santos. But as he watched, from his bed, a brown wave creeping under the front door, Santos decided to follow his daughter’s advice.

The family quickly elevated furniture, a stove, and a refrigerator from the ground. They used bedsheets to pack clothes, pans, and some food. They stacked documents, medicine, and money in their pockets. Then, they fled to Geniza’s two-story brick house, located on the same plot of land.

They thought they were safe, but the water reached the house’s second story within the hour.

Sitting in shock on the living room couch, the family heard screams. From the window, they saw a neighbor floating down the street on top of a refrigerator. He had stayed behind at his small cleaning company, trying to salvage products, until the muddy waters engulfed him. They pulled him over the balcony, and soon, everyone was forced to climb onto the roof through a trapdoor to escape from drowning.

They spent the night awake on the roof, repeatedly monitoring the water level with a flashlight. 

That night, the Taquari River reached 98 feet (29.92 meters), almost 36 feet (11m) above normal levels. “It was like a horror film. In the dark, we could hear neighbors and animals screaming for help,” recalls Geniza. From above, they witnessed the city’s main bridge collapse under the force of the water. They also watched, terrified, Euclides Satos’ house floating in the muddy sea that had taken over their backyard.

When the water finally receded, they understood the scale of the tragedy. Euclides Santos lost his house and everything inside: furniture, appliances, and family photos. Geniza also lost almost everything she owned. In a way, they felt lucky that they hadn’t lost their lives. In total, 53 people died, and thousands were left homeless in the region–most of them in the city of Muçum.

On November 18 last year, when they finally managed to clean up several feet of sewage sludge from their property, it happened again. The Taquari River had remained almost 10 feet (3 meters) above normal levels, and a single heavy rain was enough to cause it to overflow. Around 60% of the city went underwater again, including the first floor of Geniza Santo’s house.

It was a gut punch for those who were finally rebuilding their lives.

Euclides Santos and his wife, who were still living in their daughter’s house, saw the chance of rebuilding their home as increasingly distant. They clung to a promise from Muçu’s City Hall to deliver new houses funded by the Federal Government’s program My House My Life. However, it could take years before the homes are developed.

Euclides Ferreira dos Santos, 75 anos, em frente aos escombros de sua casa em Muçum, Rio Grande do Sul
Euclides Ferreira and his family are far from the dream of rebuilding their lives in Muçum

After the double tragedy, the family’s financial challenges only increased. The Rio Grande do Sul State raised US$993 thousand (R$4.75 million) in donations to help residents recover, but each nuclear family received only US$194 (R$1,000) in shopping vouchers to spend on local businesses. Neither father nor daughter qualified for the larger grant of US$ 486.31 (R$2,500) for those living in extreme poverty.

“How am I going to rebuild my life with this amount? I have a heart problem, and I spend US$136 (R$700) a month on medicine alone,” complains Euclides Santos. To make matters worse, he broke three ribs, falling from a ladder while trying to remove rotten wood from his old house. “I feel like I only have three options: Buy medicine, buy food, or rebuild my house,” he said. When Euclides Santos can’t escape these thoughts, he lies on a mattress next to his old house and cries.

Moradores limpam ruas enlameadas de Muçum
Each nuclear family received only US$194 (R$1,000) in aid to spend in local businesses after the disasters in 2023

“This can’t be happening again”

On the morning of May 1, 2024, the family saw a post on the Instagram page of Muçum’s City Hall warning that a nearby dam had ruptured and the Taquari River could overflood. “I thought, ‘this can’t be happening again,’” Geniza Santos said.

They went on autopilot and packed documents, medicine, clothes, towels, and slippers. This time, the warning gave them enough time to leave their house. They got into the family’s two cars and drove to the city’s highest point. The family slept four nights in their vehicles until they found vacancies in a local shelter–where they are now sleeping on floor mattresses.

This time, the river’s level exceeded 99 feet (30.27 m) above average, even more than the previous times.

When the family finally got through the mud and returned to their property, they found overwhelming damage. Everything they managed to buy or receive in donations last year was ruined, including furniture, a stove, a refrigerator, and a washing machine. “Honestly, we have no tears left to cry. I worry about my father, who was already depressed,” said Geniza Santos.

Euclides Santos’ partially rebuilt house floated in brown water again. “I had already erected wooden walls and installed windows. I recently purchased a PVC liner for the roof. I lost everything again. I feel like I no longer have the strength to start over,” he said.

Climate refugees

As the family begins the long process of cleaning up once more, they contemplate leaving town. “The discouragement is widespread. Many of our neighbors have not even come back to clean up their homes and are looking for other places to live,” said Geniza Santos. But the decision to leave is also tricky. “Moving to another city is expensive. And with elderly parents, we have an issue with mobility. I don’t know if it’s worse to stay or to leave.”

In an interview with Agência Pública, the mayor of Muçum, Mateus Trojam (MDB), said that he has no doubt some residents will depart the city. “We are very distressed by this, very distressed. We managed to hold onto many people after last year’s climate events, but this is the third time this has happened.”

For Trojam, one way to motivate people to stay is to rethink the city and abandon areas at risk of flooding. His office has already begun this work by banning the construction of new houses in certain lots, but it lacks the resources to build new infrastructure in safe places.

“We have funding approved by the federal and state governments to build houses outside the flood zones. But we still need to find the right land, prepare the ground, build access and infrastructure, and redirect electricity and water. So there is no way to specify a date for delivery of these houses. And with the most recent flooding, we may need more homes. We need a lot more funding to achieve all of these goals,” he said.

Moradores desabrigados retiram doações em abrigo de Muçum
According to a recent report, Brazil has 500,000 climate refugees
Moradores desabrigados retiram doações em abrigo de Muçum
Residents of Rio Grande do Sul have become part of the statistic

Muçum residents who make the decision to leave the city will join thousands of climate refugees in Brazil. “We have three profiles of refugees: The northeastern rural producer that is expelled by soil desertification, the favela resident in high-risk areas inside large cities, and now, in the southern region, people leaving due to the rains,” said Délcio Rodrigues, executive director of Instituto ClimaInfo.

Projections show the number of refugees could increase significantly with the worsening of the climate crisis in Brazil, which already impacts 26 million people. “The situation is only going to get worse. There will be 17 million climate refugees by 2050 in Latin America and a significant part in Brazil. In Rio Grande do Sul state, a confluence of meteorological factors makes the region one of the most affected,” he said

Cities are not prepared

The Brazilian Government’s climate change platform, Adapt Brazil, reveals the cities’ failure to deal with the climate crisis. According to the recent report Brazil’s Climate Policy in Full, published by the Talanoa Institute, the platform indicates that almost 70% of municipalities have very low or low capacity to adapt to geo-hydrological disasters caused by climate change.

Although Brazil has emergency response mechanisms, they don’t always consider preventive measures. “Brazil is not yet prepared and needs to invest a lot in adaptation policies,” said Marina Caetano, Institutional Relations Manager at Talanoa.

Part of the solution is reformulating the National Climate Change Adaptation Plan (PNA), created in 2016 by the Brazilian government but never implemented. The new plan would have to consider an increasingly extreme climate and guarantee funding for states and municipalities in addition to transferring emergency resources—which already exceed US$194 million (R$1 billion) for this flood.

For José Marengo, general coordinator of Research and Modeling at the Brazilian National Center for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters (CEMADEN), these resources are crucial as there’s no doubt similar tragedies will continue to happen. “I’m from Peru, and I’m used to seeing signs indicating safe areas in case of tsunamis. Everyone knows where to go. This is sorely lacking here. People are taken to shelters in schools and churches after the disaster, but why not before?”

Carla Ruas/Agência Pública
Mauricio Tonetto e Gustavo Mansur/Palácio Piratini
Mauricio Tonetto e Gustavo Mansur/Palácio Piratini
Mauricio Tonetto e Gustavo Mansur/Palácio Piratini

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