Southern Natural Disasters: Climate Change or Man-Made Calamities?

At the same time a growing drought in the neighboring state to the South, Rio Grande do Sul, was threatening crop production. Only a few hundred miles away, parts of Argentina were experiencing the worst spring heat wave on record, and baseball-sized ice balls fell in the Argentine city of Mendoza breaking car windshields and scattering pedestrians.

Two months later, just a week and a half ago, the central Brazilian state, Minas Gerais, was now at the heart of the flooding disaster, with two-dozen dead and more than 60,000 homeless. The New Year brought intense rains and winds again to Santa Catarina, flooding rivers, knocking more out of their homes in the Southern part of the state, and begging the question: What is going on?

Global Warming?

Since the 1970s, scientists have been linking growing Carbon Dioxide levels to rising world temperatures. While corporate interests have attempted to discredit what most in the scientific community have long held as fact, individuals across the planet have been feeling the effects of global warming.

According to statistics from the World Meteorological Organization of the United Nations (WMO), 2008 was the 10th hottest of the last 150 years (the other nine were also registered within the last twelve years). Some parts of the Artic experienced unusually elevated temperatures – 10 degrees Celsius higher than in 2007 -which contributed to the loss of 2 trillion metric tons of ice, which have melted over the last five years, causing sea levels to rise by a half a centimeter in only half a decade.

That’s just for starters. "The tendency is for global warming to continue," said Michel Jarraud, Secretary General of the WMO at its annual presentation in December. The problem is not just rising temperatures, but the fact that warmer global temperatures tend to intensify weather patterns. Storms, floods, heat waves, blizzards and droughts all become more common and more extreme.

"We know that climate change is going to make events like these (Santa Catarina) even more intense," Jarraud said, pointing to the 2008 season which sent eight hurricanes barreling in to the U.S. and the Caribbean, five of which were "unusually" strong.

South America is no exception. In 2008, the average high temperature for the coldest month (July) in Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Southern Brazil was 3 degrees warmer than normal.

As Al Gore pointed out in his 2006 documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" the first known hurricane to ever cross the equator into the Southern Hemisphere, ran in to Santa Catarina in 2004, causing $500 million in damages, and killing 11. The coordinator of Greenpeace’s Brazilian Climate Campaign, Carlos Rittl, said that according to recent studies, we could likely see a repeat in the future.

South American meteorologists have shied away from linking global warming to the recent intense weather in the Southern Cone, but that does not mean it hasn’t played a roll.

"I can’t say if the cause is climate change or other reasons," said Gérard Gómez, head of the Regional Office for Latin American and Caribbean of the UN’s Office of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in December. "What we can confirm is that the tendency is clear, there are more unexpected meteorological phenomena which cause extraordinary harm to the region." According to the Gomez’s Office, 7,000 people died in Latin America in 2008 due to natural disasters, and 18 million people were affected, with a cost of $7 Billion.

Man-Made Natural Disasters

"Global Warming is the excuse for everything," says Rodrigo Moretti, member of the Santa Catarina Environmental Police in Criciúma, one of the regions pounded by rains earlier this month. "They use global warming to explain the river that changed course or flooded, but really the biggest problem here is that our region lacks a strong environmental entity that fights the environmental crimes that are being committed."

Moretti should know. In the first week in January, the Araranguá River flooded its banks, covering the countryside and knocking thousands of people out of their homes.

"Our region is a textbook case," Moretti said last week. "The Araranguá River – where the flooding recently occurred – had received funds from the government three or four times to open the canal at the mouth of the river, which naturally closes little by little. If it had been open now during this flood, most of the water that flooded over in to the homes and the fields would have gone out in to the ocean. That’s where the money was supposed to go, and it was diverted."

Moretti says that farmers and local residents make matters worse by planting or constructing their homes with little regard for the 100-foot-wide area of preservation along the riverbanks. Without the "auxiliary forest" or vegetation, topsoil is easily washed in to the river, exacerbating the flood by further clogging the overflowing river. This is the case across the state, including the Itajaí River, which was at the heart of the Santa Catarina tragedy in November.

"It’s going to rain, but if there is an area of protection along the banks of the river, the size of the flood is going to be much less," says Ana Echevenguá an environmental lawyer and coordinator of the the Ecoaçao program of the environmental NGO Ambiental Acqua Bios, based in the Santa Catarina state capital, Florianopolis.

Blumenau was one of the towns hardest hit by the Itajaí flooding in November. But the tragedy was exacerbated by devastating mudslides, which leveled hillsides, bringing down homes, and knocking out a section of the Bolivia-Brazil gas pipeline that carries natural gas through the state.

Silvio Saad, Vice-president of Ambiental Acqua Bios, says that much of the disaster could have been averted. "It’s obvious, and pretty much confirmed that the destruction of the Baú Mountain in Blumenau occurred because of a problem with the gas pipeline," he said. "In order to economize, they built the gas piping over the land, and the explosion blew up the mountainside causing the mudslides. If they had constructed the piping underground- which is the norm -you wouldn’t have had this problem. This is a typical example."

But the root cause of the natural disasters may go far beyond cutting costs, negligence, lack of oversight, or climate change.

"It’s great for the local governments," says Echevenguá. "This tragedy in Santa Catarina is marvelous for the mayors that were in financial troubles. They were in the red, and now money is rolling in and they won’t have to justify their spending. The people who are suffering will just have to deal. Next year there will be another tragedy. Everyone turns into a thief. They take what isn’t theirs, and what is supposed to go for the public good."

In late November, President Lula promised $750 million in emergency funds for the states affected by the rains, including a $250 million emergency package for Santa Catarina.  According to Marcelo Baumbach, spokesperson for the Brazilian Presidency, $40 million would go to victims who had lost their homes, $160 million would be earmarked for the reconstruction of Santa Catarina’s ports, and $130 for road repair (half to be used in the state).  Last week, Brazil’s National Bank of Social and Economic Development (BNDES) approved $40 million dollars in capital to jumpstart the state’s small and medium businesses in the wake of the rains.

Like the $700 billion bailout in the U.S., these emergency funds are often allocated with no strings attached. "We don’t know what these funds are really being used for," says Echevenguá. The same can be said for the more than $10 million in humanitarian aid donated to victims of the Santa Catarina tragedy. Television reports in December showed Brazilian soldiers working as humanitarian workers, pillaging shoes, clothes and other items from the things donated for those in need.

With no oversight over emergency funds, and little environmental policing, improvements are probably not on the horizon.

"I want to believe that things are looking up, but I don’t see it," says Echevenguá, who says she became an environmental lawyer because she believed that environmental protection would come hand in hand with the right laws. "Everyone says that Brazil has excellent environmental legislation, that it protects the environment, and this is true. But it is not complied with. It’s really beautiful on paper, but it hasn’t left the paper, yet."

Echevenguá points to the power of the corporate lobby, which easily "modifies the laws" by "buying" off those in power. Widespread corruption in Brazil ensures impunity, and the lack of adequate oversight and environmental inspection makes it nearly impossible to ensure that citizens and corporations comply with environmental laws.

"Environmental crime isn’t any different than any other crime," says Moretti. "If you know that you are not going to be held responsible for the crime that you are committing, then you’re going to do it. And that’s what’s happening."

According to Moretti, there is only one environmental policeman per municipality in Santa Catarina. In Santa Catarina, Brazil’s Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) has just over 200 employees, less than the number of municipalities in the entire state. Funding for Brazil’s Ministry of Environment totals only .5% of the national budget.

As O Estado de Sao Paulo pointed out in December, the UN Program on the Environment recently reported that the deforestation of the Amazon could result in as much as $1 Trillion in damages to the Central and Southern Cone region, "because in the Amazon- as we are reminded by Professor Antônio Nobre – 20 billion tons of water evaporates per day, and part of this ends up in the center of the country and the Southern Cone. With the reduction in biomass, this will alter the cycle of rains."

"You no longer know what might happen tomorrow," says Moretti, "We never would have predicted that we would have been hit by a hurricane, and we were. We wouldn’t have imagined a rain like this, and there it was."

Everywhere we look, the land is affected by environmental degradation, pollution and disaster. Along the Santa Catarina coasts, lately it’s been the rains. Over the hills in to the Western part of the state, it’s a growing drought exacerbated by a filthy pork industry which dumps its swine waste into the state’s evaporating rivers. Lush forest in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil are wiped clean to make way for rivers of soy. Land is cleared in Uruguay and Southern Brazil for Eucalyptus pulp plantations which not only destroy the environment, but also suck the precious reserves of water dry. Elsewhere, it’s the sugar-cane industry, which has seen its second coming with the rise in ethanol production.

In the rapid quest for profit, the true "costs" of environment damage are brushed off as externalities. The victims are left to pay the tab.

An article yesterday in the Diário Catarinense showed a mother surrounded by her eleven children standing in front of a dilapidated house in the Santa Catarina town of Joinville. She and her family were recipients of the housing support promised by the local government in a program implemented in mid December to help the victims of the tragedy. As of the date, their family was the only one to have received the $200 support, nearly a month after the program began.

"Everyone blames global warming," says Echevenguá. "or the greenhouse effect, or even the economic tragedy – this financial crisis that just happened to come here. But we can’t accept these justifications. We have to find the culprits. How did this happen?"

That’s a question we should all be asking ourselves. In the meantime, the results of our inaction continue to take their toll on the planet.

Michael Fox is a South America-based journalist with a degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Colorado. He is a regular contributor to Toward Freedom.