Rain often brings deadly flooding and property damage to neighborhoods around Brazil, where people are organizing to address the worsening problem.
RIO DE JANEIRO — Cover the mirrors, turn off all the electrical appliances and call to find out where your child is. Listen to the sirens, the thunder, the roof swaying, and feel the fear of not knowing what to do.
These are familiar feelings for many in Brazil, who still remember rainy-day survival advice shared by parents and grandparents. In Rio de Janeiro, which has seen more than two-thirds of the deaths caused by environmental disasters in Brazil over the past decade, climate anxiety is very real.
The American Psychological Association defines climate anxiety (or eco-anxiety) as a chronic fear of the impact of climate change, and concern for the future of current and upcoming generations. This fear, intensified by environmental disasters, is increasingly recurrent.
The future is scary
A recent University of Bath study surveyed 10,000 young people around the world: 75% of those interviewed agreed that “The future is scary.” Young people in Brazil are among the biggest victims of “eco-anxiety.”
The climate crisis affects even more a specific profile of Black and poor women.
The research doesn't break down data further by race or geography — a crucial question, says biologist and environmentalist Karina Penha.
“Brazilian peripheries and traditional communities already have to deal with the lack of water, basic sanitation, demarcation of their lands, racism and insecurity," Penha says. "In addition to these thousand problems, they are also the ones who suffer the most from the impacts of the climate crisis. There's no way these youths who experience Brazilian inequality, in the end, can't be anxious. You are discovering that your territory is threatened, and often the territory is all these people have.”
In the Metropolitan Region of Rio, a group of young activists created The Climate is Changing Coalition. Bringing together groups from the neighborhoods Jacarezinho, Realengo, Maré, Queimados and others, the Coalition has tried to share social strategies and technologies that help to reduce the climate crisis in the city's suburbs. Maria Clara Salvador, a researcher at the civil society organization Visão Coop and a resident of Queimados, is one of the young people on the front line.
“Fighting the climate crisis becomes almost an obligation because we are there; the flood is on my street, and the street of other young people. Emotionally, this seems to give us an obligation to act, and pressure and anxiety about our lives and future. Young people in the suburbs are powerful, but they often have their lives cut short by these processes of violence,“ Salvador says.
Climate anxiety in the suburbs connects to many other issues, Penha adds.
For the suburbs and traditional communities, it is often a question of survival. "When we identify that we are at the center of the climate crisis, this is where the importance of intersectionality comes in," she says. "We live with overlapping oppressions"
Penha adds that young people from different backgrounds have different spaces and access to work on mitigating the climate crisis. "It is always good to remember that we are in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat: there are people on ships and others in canoes.”
Six people died in the state of Rio due to the rains on Feb. 8. Among them was a two-year-old girl who lived in Morro da Chácara do Céu, in the North Zone of Rio.
According to data from Casa Fluminense, the state of Rio has more than 2.1 million homes that are considered inadequate, in addition to a housing deficit of 481,000 homes. In a mostly Black and female metropolis, the climate crisis affects even more a specific profile of Black and poor women.
Between 2017 and 2022, 2.9 million people were directly or indirectly affected by events related to heavy rains. Of those millions of cases, about 54% happened in the last year alone. Civil defence data count dead, injured, sick, homeless, displaced and other types of humanitarian damage. The cases occurred in times of flooding, landslides, floods and heavy rains.
In 2022, according to Civil Defence data, 1.5 million people were affected by environmental disasters related to heavy rains in the metropolis of Rio. There were 85 dead, 358 injured, 203 missing, 1994 homeless and 15,365 people displaced.
The community of Rio das Pedras is located in the West Zone of Rio, between Tijuca National Park and Lagoa da Tijuca. The river for which the community is named is also the source of tension between residents. Sometimes, just slight changes at sea are enough to bring water from the lagoon flooding into the streets of the favela, even without rain. This geography, combined with the lack of drainage and sewage system, makes the river even more likely to overflow.
Damage in Petropolis caused by floods, killing 80 people in Petropolis, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Health problems and property damage
Open sewers and constant flooding can threaten homes in the community, especially those who live in the Areal and Areinha sub-regions, which are the least urbanized in Rio das Pedras and have swampy, poorly drained soil because of the nearby river and lagoon.
Dona Rosangela Silva, 44, has lived in the community since 1999. She has closely followed the disorderly growth of the favela, and has had health problems for a year after bacteria in floodwaters infected her leg. She had to stay in hospital for more than two weeks, and underwent intensive treatment to prevent the bacteria from reaching her heart.
I don't let my youngest go to school because I don't know if there's any way he can come back.
“It was like I had stuck my leg in fire. It was full of blisters; they covered it with a blanket to help. To this day, I no longer wear a knee-length dress, because the leg has a very different color from the other. Here, the right thing is always to wear sneakers because we never know how the street will be on the way back," she says. "On days when it rains, I don't go out. I'm afraid to step on the street. I already knew that the water here was worrying; now, even more so. This shouldn’t be a place for us to live, but since we have no other, we must stay here."
The regions are also just two meters above sea level, having been leveled by residents themselves. With the rise of the tide and the lack of river flow, flooding is frequent.
“There are days when I don't let my youngest, 14, go to school because I don't know if there's any way he can come back. I am scared. Three years ago, floodwater invaded our house and we were knee-deep in water. My bed turned into a boat. Since then, I no longer buy furniture for the house. I just adapt what I already have. All of the locals here have been through this. Today, I prefer to invest in other things, so I don't feel sad about having to throw them away,” she says.
Looking to the future
Faced with this scenario, a group of residents of the region prepared the Agenda Rio das Pedras 2030. Formed by young researchers and older community leaders, the group holds regular workshops to monitor problems facing the community.
“If I am away from home, I worry about how and what time I will arrive. I feel tired just thinking about this delay," says Resident Eloiza Santiago, 28, who is a part of the group. "If I'm already at home when it starts to rain, I worry about that some property might collapse. That is why we created the Agenda; we want these episodes of environmental injustice to stop being normalized, and residents to be able to demand the resolution of these problems from those who should be charged — the public authorities,” Santiago says.
Understanding the climate crisis as an intersectional problem, Rio 2030 Agenda da Casa Fluminense proposes the creation of a State Secretariat for Climate Emergency. The new body would be responsible for promoting adaptation and urban resilience, as well as preventing floods, landslides and other environmental disasters based on a State Plan for Adaptation to Climate Change. Currently, in the Metropolitan Region of Rio, out of 22 municipalities, only Niterói and Rio de Janeiro have secretariats dedicated to the theme of climate.