A deadly storm reminds Pernambuco of its vulnerability to climate change and its deep inequality

Editor’s note: At least 128 people died and 9,200 lost their homes after severe rainstorms in Pernambuco state, Brazil, triggered a series of devastating landslides.

More than a natural disaster, the tragedy exposed the consequences of the lack of urban and environmental policies in the state.

According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Recife (Pernambuco’s Capital) has the highest risk level for ocean level rise in Brazil and occupies the 16 position in the world among cities threatened by ocean rise caused by climate change. Despite the risks, Recife’s investment in vulnerable areas decreased from 0,94 percent of the city budget, in 2013, to 0,37 percent, in 2020. In the same period, the city invested BRL 152,2 million (US$ 31,7 million) in the urbanization of areas at risk, three times less than the US$ 94,2 million spent on the maintenance of streets and avenues.

The disaster also exposed a social gap: black communities living on precarious hills and slopes were the most affected, while the predominantly white and wealthier population was in safer areas with proper infrastructure. A tourist beach town that attracts 2,5 million visitors every year, Recife is the Brazilian state capital with the highest social inequality, according to data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.

“What we have is a housing policy vacuum. And that means condemning part of the population to death”, warns Socorro Leite, ​​the director of NGO Habitat for Humanity Brazil.

Report for the World corps member Arnaldo Sete has been covering the aftermath of the floods and landslides in the most vulnerable communities, highlighting through his photographs the issues that led to this tragedy and the growing inequality and poverty left in its wake.

Landslides caused by the rainstorms killed two people in Corrego do Abacaxi, in Olinda city, Pernambuco state. (Photo by Arnaldo Sete/Marco Zero)
Após as fortes chuvas que atingiram o Recife e Região Metropolitana, moradores da comunidade Sapo Nu, localizada no Curado na cidade do Recife, contabilizam as perdas nesta quarta (01). O rio Tejipió transbordou ocasionando inundação na Comunidade. Foto: Arnaldo Sete/MZ Conteúdo.
In Corrego do Abacaxi community, areas at risk were covered to mitigate the risks of new landslides. (Photo by Arnaldo Sete/Marco Zero)
Marluce Maria, a resident of the Córrego do Abacaxi community, had to leave her home permanently due to the risk of new landslides: the house was isolated and will be demolished. (Photo by Arnaldo Sete/Marco Zero)
Rosemary da Silva, 44 years old, and her partner, Sérgio Pimentel, 54, were among the victims. Their bodies were found by the rescue team in Córrego do Abacaxi, on May 25 (Photo by Arnaldo Sete/Marco Zero)
In Sapo Nu community, residents put out a collective clothesline across the street to dry the clothes out after the storm. (Photo by Arnaldo Sete/Marco Zero)
The Tejipió River overflowed causing flooding in Sapo Nu community (Photo by Arnaldo Sete/Marco Zero)
Yellow stains on the walls of the house of Gilma José Rodrigues, a resident of the Sapo Nu community, indicate how high the water rose during the storm. (Photo by Arnaldo Sete/Marco Zero)
Shelters for displaced families offer temporary relief for those who lost everything: on the stairs, words like respect and empathy are a reminder of what they expect from the authorities. (Photo by Arnaldo Sete/Marco Zero)