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Risk, Resilience and Gender in the Current Petrópolis Tragedy

Joshua Anthony10 March 2022

Written by Dr Louisa Acciari and Mônica Ribeiro.


This is the worst tragedy lived by Petrópolis to date, even though floods and landslides are nothing new to this region. According to Agencia Brasil, so far, the Civil Defence was able to count 232 deaths, while over 1,000 people were made homeless. Among the victims, the gender gap is quite expressive: 138 women compared to 94 men. This means that, as of today, about 60% of the victims are women. Similar catastrophic events have hit the city before; in 1988, floods led to 134 deaths, and in 2011, landslides – also provoked by heavy rains – led to 73 fatalities. This comes on top of the on-going pandemic crisis, with a current weekly rate of 5,000 infections and around 70 deaths in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Despite the unprecedented scale of the event, the mechanisms are well-known and this disaster could have been prevented.

Credits to: Fernando Frazão/ Agência Brasil

 

An avoidable disaster

Investments, containment, and protection projects cannot be treated as a surprise or an emergency when rains are forecasted for every beginning of the year. Nature is implacable: it does not wait for political election or the end of the sanitary crisis. Yet, the state’s responsibility is huge. If local powers were used to invoke the lack of economic resources for structural protection, now, the bill will be higher: we need new houses, new streets, new plans, indemnities, sanitary adjustments, investment in public health. This comes along with mourning and suffering in the face of loss of human life. Numerous testimonies of families affected by the tragedy are being published. Those are people who lost their spouse, children, grandparents… as well as their homes and living environment.

The areas impacted by the landslides are known to be risky: the 2007 Municipal Risk Reduction Plan indicated the ‘high’ and ‘very high risk’ areas, which were precisely those affected in the city of Petrópolis. Despite the existence of such a plan, persistent problems of land tenure, irregular occupation, increasingly intense rain and lack of proper urban planning, keep putting vulnerable populations at risk in the region. Specifically, in the Morro da Oficina, more than 700 houses were in danger, with more than 240 identified at the highest risk level. Those are the houses of low-income families who are left with little alternatives.

In a text published in 2013, Eduardo Antonio Licco already pointed out the deficiencies in urban planning and early warning systems in Petrópolis. For instance, interviews with victims of the 2011 floods reveal that the noise of the rain covered that of the alert sirens, and that people did not how to proceed in this type of situation. In the face of existing evidence, one could expect that local and federal authorities would have taken more robust actions to protect the inhabitants of Petrópolis.

The politics of death

This tragedy comes at a time where the Brazilian government is already being accused of crimes against humanity for its bad management of the Covid-19 crisis. For so many of us, it feels like human life does not matter to decision-makers. Scholars and social movements alike have referred to the concept of necropolitics, coined by the African author, Achille Mbembe (2003), which describes the politics of death organized by the state. According Mbembe, in exceptional situations, the state would have an illegitimate use of force to determine who should live and who should die. The abandonment by the Brazilian state of the most vulnerable sections of the population in the face of Covid-19, and now with the landslides in Petrópolis, can be understood as a way of organizing the death of the poorest.

According to mapping conducted by the journal UOL on the Portal of Transparency of the municipality of Petrópolis, in 2021, 2 million BRL (approximately 290,000 GBP) were reserved – but not actually spent – for works of prevention of landslides. In contrast, the marketing and Christmas lighting budget amounted to 5.5 million BRL (approximately 800,000 GBP); twice the budget for disaster prevention. The amount allocated to “scenic, ornamental and decorative lighting for Imperial Christmas 2021” exceeds the resources for containment works in the 1st District – the most affected by the rains – as indicated in the mapping carried out by the Municipal Risk Reduction Plan.

Gender and intersecting inequalities

Finally, we can notice the higher death rate for women; out of the 232 fatalities, 138 were women and 94 men. Although it is way too soon to draw definitive conclusions, and keeping in mind that this proportion may change, we can try to suggest some possible explanations.

Many studies show that women are more vulnerable to disasters, because of a combination of factors such as their social roles, lack of access to resources or political marginalisation. Research on floods points to the fact that women tend to feel more responsible for their families, making them less likely to evacuate the affected-area on time, and that once in a shelter, they will take on all the reproductive and caring tasks to keep their families alive (see for instance Siena & Valencio, 2009).

An exemplary case of these gendered-dynamics is women affected by dams, as in the city of Morada Nova de Minas. Since 1960, with the construction of the Três Marias dam, forced migration and reduced income have affected the population, especially women. In 2019, after the rupture of the Brumadinho dam and speculation of water contamination, it was noticed that despite the loss of work and reduced income, women stayed and resisted on their lands, often mentioning their support network, bonds of affection, and cultural connection.

The burden of care work has been widely debated in the context of the pandemic crisis, and existing data show that women have absorbed the core needs of their households during the lockdown period, often at the detriment of their own remunerated job and well-being. In Brazil, a survey conducted by the feminist organisation SOF shows that 50% of women started taking care of someone during the pandemic, while 40% said that the situation of social isolation put the sustainability of their household at risk. Thus, we could imagine that many women, mothers, and spouses, were at home taking care of the house or of someone else.

What now?

While rescue services are still working to save lives and identify the names of those missing, we can reflect on the state of public policies in Brazil. Rains are nothing new and they will certainly happen again, so it is time that our elected representative make the right decisions and investments, and start valuing human lives. Local plans for risk reduction and emergency response already exist; all it takes is adequate resources to make them effective. How many more tragedies do we need for governments to take action?

If you read these lines and want to support the victims, here is a link with a list of local actors that are accepting donations: https://www.cnnbrasil.com.br/nacional/saiba-como-ajudar-as-vitimas-das-chuvas-em-petropolis-rj/.


Dr Louisa Acciari is Research Fellow and Co-director of the Centre for Gender and Disaster at the University College London (UK), and Research Associate of the Núcleo de Estudos em Sexualidade e Gênero (NESEG) at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Louisa is also the Global Network Coordinator for GRRIPP.

Email: l.acciari@ucl.ac.uk

Recent publications: Pinto, C., Acciari, L., Brites, J. et al. (2021) Os sindicatos das trabalhadoras domésticas em tempos de pandemia: memórias da resistência, FACOS-UFSM: https://www.ufsm.br/editoras/facos/os-sindicatos-das-trabalhadoras-domesticas-em-tempos-de-pandemia-memorias-da-resistencia/

Acciari, L., del Carmen Britez, J., & del Carmen Morales Pérez, A. (2021). Right to health, right to live: domestic workers facing the COVID-19 crisis in Latin America. Gender & Development, 29(1), 11-33.

Mônica Ribeiro is a doctoral student at the Graduate Program in Sociology and Anthropology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, researcher at the Núcleo de Estudos em Sexualidade e Gênero (NESEG). Mônica is Professor of Scientific Methodology at the Instituto de Ensino Superior Planalto – IESPLAN and Coordinator of the Scientific Journal of the Institution.  

Email: monicatsribeiro@gmail.com

Recent publications: Ribeiro, M.T.S. (2021) Vozes Submersas: Políticas Públicas, desenvolvimento e resistência lá na Morada. Belo Horizonte: Editora Dialética.

https://www.amazon.com.br/Vozes-Submersas-pol%C3%ADticas-desenvolvimento-resist%C3%AAncia-ebook/dp/B099SCKWS4/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8

Ribeiro, M. T. S; Collares, I. Z.; Calazans, D.R.N de S. et al (2021): The construction of the Três Marias dam and the absence of public policies for the arrival of the waters in the municipality of Morada Nova de Minas in Brazil. Edward Elgar Publishing:

https://www.elgaronline.com/view/edcoll/9781800889361/9781800889361.00023.xml

Kashmir’s lockdown increases disaster risk

Jessica Field19 August 2019

On 5 August 2019, the Government of India unilaterally reorganised Jammu and Kashmir state into two Union Territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh – and revoked Article 370, which contained protected privileges for the disputed territory. Tens of thousands of soldiers have been deployed to the region, tens of thousands of tourists and workers have fled

Since 4 August, Kashmir Valley has been on a communications blackout and curfew, which poses serious disaster risks for the population as well as everyday challenges, fear and fury.

Kashmir Valley and Ladakh are frequently lauded as two of the most beautiful parts of South Asia. The Valley is bounded by the Himalayan mountain range and has the nickname “paradise on earth”; Ladakh is high up in the desert mountains and often called “Little Tibet,” or the “Roof of the World”.[i] Their location and climates, however, make them incredibly hazard-exposed.[ii] Most of the Kashmir region falls under a seismic zone V (the highest earthquake risk category), and the entire erstwhile state is prone to a variety of hazards. During winter, intense snowfall can cut off large parts of the region for months. Avalanches and landslides are commonplace. From July to September, Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh are at particular risk of flooding – Kashmir from heavy rains, Ladakh from cloud bursts and Glacial Lake Outburst Floods. These risks are often exacerbated by poor city planning and illegal developments in flood plains.

Dal Lake, Srinagar. Photo: J. Field

As a result of a number of recent disasters,[iii] local government officials across Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh have been attempting to improve their Disaster Management planning – both in terms of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and emergency response. Ladakh began developing its own District Disaster Management Plan after severe floods in 2010 and since 2017 has been working to update it. Reacting to the devastating 2014 floods in Kashmir, the district administration moved to develop its own Disaster Management Plan shortly after.

These Disaster Management Plans are still under development and have a long way to go before they effectively incorporate inclusive and vulnerability-responsive DRR and plan for a more effective emergency response. The Government of India’s latest moves in the region have potentially pushed their development back several paces, and the the total security lockdown of Kashmir may significantly increase disaster risks for an already vulnerable population.

As Ilan Kelman and I have argued elsewhere, some of the weaknesses in effective emergency planning have long existed as a result of the protracted security environment in Kashmir and Ladakh, where hazard-centred and military-led responses have too often been prioritised over longer-term DRR or more inclusive emergency planning.

Since 5th August 2019, these challenges have multiplied.

In this current moment, residents of Kashmir are experiencing lockdown and a widespread communications blackout. For 12 days, mobile phones, landlines and internet services were entirely cut (with sporadic access only coming to some areas in recent days). A strict curfew has been imposed, and the Valley’s political leaders have been put under house arrest. People have not been able to access medical treatment, withdraw cash, or travel out of the area. In Ladakh, Kargil too has faced lockdown. These restrictions have serious disaster risk implications.

Firstly, effective disaster management and emergency responses require active and accessible communication: i.e. operational early warning systems, communication infrastructure that connects residents to each other as well as their government, and access to information (reports suggest that some Kashmiris didn’t know why they were under lockdown several days after the constitutional change, let alone what they should do in a hazard scenario). Worryingly, communication blackouts are not tools deployed in extraordinary circumstances in Kashmir – they are a regular occurrence, with 54 internet shutdowns in 2019 alone.

Effective disaster management and emergency responses also require mobility and access to healthcare services: i.e. the possibility to visit hospitals when required (and for those hospitals to be stocked with sufficient supplies); the possibility to evacuate to a safer location in the event of a hazard; the ability to visit and check on vulnerable family members, or get personal supplies from stores.

Importantly, effective disaster management and emergency responses require trust. You need responsible and accountable individuals in charge of planning, monitoring and emergency responses (not locked up under house arrest in Kashmir, or feigning ‘peaceful’ stability from Delhi). The Government of India should recall its record of centre-led disaster relief in the Valley is not such a good one. Its failure to effectively respond, compensate and rehabilitate survivors of the 2014 floods in Jammu and Kashmir fomented a sense of disaffection that fed into the 2016 violence in the Valley.[iv]

Beyond the immediate challenges, in the medium term the existing Disaster Management Plans currently held by Srinagar and Leh administrations may well have to be completely redrawn, as protocols for coordination and resources will likely be redundant now the state has been broken into two Union Territories. These drastic governance changes were literally brought in overnight without warning, preventing any Disaster Management transition. All of this has occurred at a time of year when flood risks are typically high.

For residents in Kashmir and Kargil, who are parlty or wholly cut off from the outside world and held under a military curfew, the basic needs of the present are the most urgent. But the lockdown is significantly increasing their vulnerability to hazards, too. The government needs to seriously consider their responsibility in this regard as they have created this situation. Moreover, effective disaster risk reduction and emergency response plans are highly sensitive to the surrounding context and do not simply materialise when a hazard strikes.

Tuturk in Nubra Valley, Ladakh. Photo: J. Field

Dr Jessica Field is an Associate Professor of International Affairs at O.P. Jindal Global University, India, and a Research Associate at IRDR, UCL. Her research interests are in the history and politcs of humanitarianism and disaster management.
Jessica has been a Researcher/Co-Investigator on two of IRDR’s recent research projects: Increasing Resilience to Environmental Hazards in Border Conflict Zones, and Rohingya Journeys of Violence and Resilience in Bangladesh and its Neighbours. On these projects, Jessica has led field research in Ladakh, Hyderabad and Calcutta, undertaking interviews with crisis-affected communities and archival research on the wider context of disasters and displacements.

Notes

[i] J. H. Fewkes, Trade and Contemporary Society Along the Silk Road: An entho-history of Ladakh, London: Routledge, 2009, p.19.

[ii] Kshitij Gupta, ‘Long Term Disaster Recovery in Kashmir’, in Long Term Disaster Recovery in Kashmir, Southasiadisasters.net, AIDMI, Issue no. 163, (October 2017): 13-14; Mihir R. Bhatt, ‘Risks in High Altitudes: How to Think About Action?’ in Community Managed Disaster Risk Reduction in High Altitude Areas,Southasiadisasters.net, AIDMI, Issue no. 85, (June 2012): 3-4.

[iii] On 6 August 2010, Ladakh experienced a cloudburst and severe flooding, which killed over 200 people and devastated Leh city and nearby villages. In September 2014, the wider Kashmir region in both Pakistan and India saw the worst floods it had experienced in decades, killing over 400 and displacing almost a million. In August last year, flash floods caused serious damage across Jammu and Kashmir.

[iv] F. Espada, ‘On Authority and Trust: A reflection on the effectiveness of disaster management in Bangladesh, India and Nepal’, in ed. Espada, F. (London: Save the Children & HCRI, 2016): 123-155. Available: http://humanitarianeffectivenessproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/South-Asia_Fernando_Espada_HAT.pdf