Climate Crisis Exacerbates Urban Inequality in Latin America

Long staircases, like the ones in this section of the Pavão-Pavãozinho favela, are the daily slog of residents of the steep hillside slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – a symbol of Latin America's urban inequalities. CREDIT: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS
Long staircases, like the ones in this section of the Pavão-Pavãozinho favela, are the daily slog of residents of the steep hillside slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – a symbol of Latin America's urban inequalities. CREDIT: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS
  • by Mario Osava (rio de janeiro)
  • Inter Press Service

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 told IPS by telephone from Bogotá.

This is especially important in Latin America, the world's most urban region, where one in five people live in cities.

Thus, in addition to the 932 points of flooding reported to the fire department on Feb. 10, 2020, São Paulo also suffered 166 landslides that destroyed many houses. No deaths were reported on that day, but torrential rains usually claim lives in Greater São Paulo, which is home to 22 million people.

Brazil’s largest city, which spreads among rolling hills and numerous small valleys, has many neighborhoods that have had to learn to cope with flooding in the rainiest summers. This is due to the 300 streams that crisscross the area, most of which are covered by avenues or enclosed in channels that are unable to contain heavy downpours.

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.

"The topography allows them to live close to their jobs" so the choice is "between formal employment or living where housing is cheaper," said Carolina Guimarães, coordinator of Rede Nossa São Paulo, a non-governmental organization that seeks to promote a "fair, democratic and sustainable" city.

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.

Greater poverty, more impacts

In addition to the fact that 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.

It is a perverse logic.

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 by telephone from São Paulo.

"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.

WRI Mexico designed the Urban Inequality Index (UDI), a tool for the formulation of public policies, which initially covers 74 metropolitan areas. It measures the public’s access to formal employment and services such as education, health and transportation, as well as food and culture.

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.

Rodríguez said this precariousness "is a widespread phenomenon in Latin America and the Caribbean, where 25 percent of the urban population lives in informal settlements." 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, he said.

Making inequality even more glaring

"The covid-19 pandemic laid bare the inequalities," Lazo stressed.

As an example, he said "there were more deaths on the eastern periphery of Mexico City, where inequality is greater. One factor is distance: it takes five times longer to get to the hospital from the periphery than from the center, so many people don’t even take patients to the hospital."

In addition, without water for hygiene and hand washing, the disease spreads more readily among the poor.

There is also a disparate power relationship between cities themselves. Tula de Allende, a city of 115,000 inhabitants located 70 kilometers north of the Mexican capital, suffered a major two-day flood in September 2021, not only because of the rains.

Mexico City's water authorities discharged an excess of rainwater and wastewater into the Tula River that could flood the capital and its outlying neighborhoods, to the detriment of the city downstream, where the river overflow displaced more than 10,000 people and left a hospital without electricity, resulting in the death of 16 patients.

Concerted action is needed. A new governance model based on planning and coordination at a citywide level could be the way forward, said Lazo.

In Rio de Janeiro, Aruan Braga, urban policy coordinator for the Favelas Observatory, told IPS that "building a more equitable and democratic city requires including, in planning, low-income areas that sustain the city in day-to-day life but don’t have the right to participate in decision-making.”

Favelas lining hills are the best-known image of Rio de Janeiro, but there is also a large vulnerable population in low-lying, flood-prone areas. One example is the Maré Complex, where some 130,000 people live in 16 favelas.

On the shores of Guanabara Bay and the Cunha channel, so polluted they are like an open sewer, the complex suffers "floods every year," said Braga, a sociologist with a master's degree in development policies, who explained that the Maré Complex was built on a large piece of land reclaimed from mangroves and flood plains.

It was built by settlers relocated from more central favelas or from wealthy and beachside neighborhoods five decades ago, in a wave of "expulsion" from favelas that continues today. Maré also grew because it is next to Avenida Brasil, the main access route to the city center, and because it is home to industrial facilities.

New policies for a new model

The four interviewees agreed that public policies are needed to make it possible to start reducing urban inequality in Latin America.

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.

Movements seeking community solutions, "social urbanism", urban agriculture and mobilization of the population for a more equitable and inclusive city point to the future, according to Guimarães.

Her Rede Nossa São Paulo has conducted studies on inequality that pointed to a difference of up to 22.6 years – from 58.3 to 80.9 years - in life expectancy between poor and rich neighborhoods in the city.

Bogota is in the process of organizing its territorial planning and there is talk of the "30-minute city", following the example of Paris, which seeks to ensure that no one has to walk more than 15 minutes to do everything they need, Rodriguez said, describing a new model in Latin America.

© Inter Press Service (2021) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service