Estrategia Internacional para la Reducción de Desastres
América Latina y el Caribe  

Revista EIRD Informa - América Latina y el Caribe
Número:13 -2006 -12/2006 - 11-/2005 - 10/2005 - 9/2004 - 8/2003 - 7/2003 - 6/2002 - 5/2002 - 4/2001- 3/2001 - 2/2000 - 1/2000

Socios en Acción



Environmental disasters in the new Brazilian poles of urban development: challenges for Civil Defence

In recent decades, Brazil’s accelerated urban expansion has not only demonstrated the increasing frequency and severity of environmental disasters and human vulnerability, but their in divisibility. In their interactions, the bio-physical and socio- cultural environments degrade each other, threatening the quality of life of urban residents—if not their very lives.

This poses new challenges for Civil Defence institutions. And while they would obviously be grateful for greater political support and funding, what they want most is to have a say on the production of scientific knowledge on risk management.

A catastrophic combination

Hydrometeorological disasters, the most common in Brazil, transcend the spatial and temporal boundaries of the rainy season. Rain, evidently, falls on a given locality. But it is the path followed by rainwater as it descends through a river basin—in conjunction with human behaviour—which determines where a disaster will strike.

Vulnerability is increased by inappropriate land-use management of watersheds. This does not affect new settlements alone but also older ones, since theirs is a systemic relationship that intertwines and modifies the risks to which they are exposed. Urban risk does not reflect only pre-existing environmental conditions, such as the geological morphology of the area. Paving the ground renders it impermeable; when that is combined with large human settlements in areas where natural springs are common, the combination is catastrophic, causing landslides and floods and destroying the belongings, livelihoods, even the dreams and lives of many. These are not merely physical processes: they are also economic, social, and cultural.

Little private tragedies

Centrados en ciudades de mediano tamaño, particularmente en el Estado de Sao Paulo, los nuevos ejes de expansión brasileños atraen a grupos humanos cuya incorporación social y económica a la zona se da de manera irregular y precaria.

El asentamiento de la periferia urbana ocurre sin planificación, ni mucho menos el otorgamiento de un título de propiedad. La falta de infraestructura básica—de electricidad, agua y saneamiento, salud, educación, transporte público y otros—compromete la satisfacción de las necesidades vitales y sociales de la población.

Incluso si los han golpeado de primera mano desastres ambientales, como la pérdida de parte de sus bienes debido a una crecida, es raro que los tránsfugas del campo a la ciudad comuniquen a Defensa Civil sus pequeñas tragedias particulares. Evidentemente, esto lleva a que se subestime el impacto de tales eventos. Pero lo más grave de todo es la constatación del hecho de que las nuevas oleadas de residentes pobres se sienten incapaces de identificar y establecer contacto con las instituciones que podrían garantizar sus derechos de ciudadanía.

Por otra parte, muchas de las ciudades en expansión carecen de oficinas de Defensa Civil. En aquellas donde sí existen tales entidades, éstas sufren un déficit crónico de equipamiento y recursos humanos, menguando su capacidad de prestar un servicio público eficaz.

La producción del saber para la gestión de riesgos

Brazil’s new urban expansion poles tend to be mid-sized cities, particularly in Sao Paulo state. They attract human groups whose social and economic incorporation to their new surroundings is irregular and precarious. The settlement of the urban periphery takes place without any planning, much less such essential but comparatively sophisticated institutional practices as the granting of land titles. The lack of basic infrastructure—electrical power, water and sanitation, health, education, public transport and others—affects the capacity to meet the essential and social needs of the population. But it goes further than that. Even if they have been hit first-hand by environmental disasters, such as the loss of their possessions during a flash-flood, it is unusual for recent immigrants to report their small private tragedies to Civil Defence. While this leads to underreporting, a matter of some concern, the truly alarming implication is that the new waves of poor urban cannot identify, much less contact, the institutions that could protect them. .

The production of knowledge for risk management

NMany of the rapidly expanding new cities do not even have a Civil Defence office. Among those that do, there is chronic deficit of equipment and human resources, affecting their capacity to serve the public effectively.

For Civil Defence, such handicaps cannot be met simply by providing additional financial, technical and human resources, important as they are. What is chiefly needed is to establish a new relationship with the academic community, as well as the private and public sectors.

One of the main challenges is to persuade the scientific community that the production of knowledge regarding environmental risks should no longer be handled, as in the past, in fragmentary fashion, emphasizing the purely physical and natural aspects of disasters. At present, meteorological, hydrological and geological data enjoy close to a monopoly when it comes to serving as inputs for decision-making regarding disaster prevention and mitigation.

Which social processes encourage certain practices that increase risk? Only by answering such questions will it be possible to determine the true degree of human vulnerability. Civil Defence, for instance, would not be limited to responding to emergencies; it could promote measures to discourage current risk-aggravating practices.

The development and availability of reliable indicators on such matters would enable societies and political leaders to consider anew the disaster cycle, from prevention to relief and reconstruction. Disaster reduction would be an integral part of the everyday policies and practices of city governments and residents.

If what is desired is a culture of prevention, no disaster reduction strategy will be effective until it is embedded in sustainable urban policies that incorporate not only the need for sensitive environmental management but also the socio- economic inclusion of all citizens.

The contribution of the social sciences

¿Several new socio-economic approaches promise to improve our understanding of the links between urban expansion and environmental disasters. Rudimentary though many of them are, they deserve further attention and development, if only because they could lead to more effective action by Civil Defence.

One such approach, by Vargas et al., has to do with the social perception of hydrological and meteorological hazards; in their own words, “the links between the attitudes, values, and practices of individuals and groups and their environment (natural and manmade), and their ways of perceiving the external world.”

How does a population coexist with the risks that surround it? What meanings does this population project onto natural phenomena, based on their individual experiences and collective memory? For instance, groups that have recently joined slums in the periphery of cities often fail to perceive the dynamic characteristics of their current, hybrid environment, part natural, part built, and this lack of awareness predisposes them to behave in ways that increase their own vulnerability.

Put differently, the objective dimensions of hazards should not overshadow their subjective dimensions. The representations of nature that characterize vulnerable populations determine to a great extent their response to the risk of disasters. Successful strategies for reducing local-level vulnerability share something in common: they work with, rather than against, community perceptions of risk. The success of such initiatives shows that local knowledge and experience can contribute to risk reduction.
A relevant role for Civil Defence

How well do political and community leaders understand the role played by Civil Defence? Should it be regarded exclusively as a response mechanism to adverse phenomena? Such a point of view might ignore its potential contribution to disaster prevention.

It is still common for policies concerning health, public works, housing and other social services to be devised as if disasters were something that happens to somebody else, somewhere else, at some other time. This hurts Civil Defence bodies in two ways: it affects their performance, since there is only so much you can do in the absence of prevention and mitigation measures, but also, precisely because their performance does not stand out, it calls into question the authority of Civil Defence to make suggestions that could prevent disasters in the first place, based on their first-hand knowledge of the communities they serve.

The links between society and its biophysical foundation are much too complex and vital to be ignored. In a rapid process of urbanization such as Brazil’s, environmental degradation is intimately linked with socio-economic factors such as the unequal distribution of wealth. Perceptions on the environmental challenges facing the new urban poles of development are cultural, institutional, political and economic constructs. So are the strategies for confronting them. If only because its contact with the real victims and the real consequences of disasters provide it with a unique perspective, Civil Defence needs to play a role in the interpretation of such constructs. It could help to identify the gaps that remain in the scientific knowledge of disasters,. But it could go further, contributing to the construction of such knowledge and testing its applicability. This is a strategic function that should not be neglected.

Norma Felicidade Lopes da Silva Valencio teaches at the Department of Social Sciences of São Carlos Federal University and is associate proffesor of theUniversity’s Post-graduate Program in Environmental Engineering Sciences.

Pedro Fernando Caballero Campos is the Civil Defence Chief of the Municipality of São Carlos/SP and the Assistant Regional Coordinator of Civil Defence for the State of São Paulo.