Fatal flooding 

Rains have caused devastating floods widening the rift between Bahia and Brasília.

Rain is usually a blessing in Brazil where enormous hydroelectric reservoirs need to be generously filled to power the homes of millions across the country. When the gods are overly generous however, disaster ensues. This is currently the case in Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia, chronically ill-equipped to deal with such eventualities. Severe flooding there has left scores dead and no less than 116 cities in a state of emergency. It has also deepened political rifts between the federal and provincial governments.    

A law professor at the Federal University of Bahia clarified the response thus far, “The Government has freed up to BRL 700 million to assist the almost 900,000 people affected by the flood of which Bahia should receive BRL 80 million.” Although he cautioned, the Government’s plans for distributing aid remains “unclear”.     

The Government has freed up to BRL 700 million to assist the almost 900,000 people affected by the flood.”

Law Professor, Federal University of Bahia, Brazil

This lack of clarity is concerning for many of those watching the federal response including one environmental analyst at the Agricultural Association of Bahia, “As for the funds needed for reconstruction funds, it’s too early to know how much will be needed and we hear conflicting figures from government sources. Some figures quote in the region of BRL 120 million just to reconstruct critical road points and there are more than 50 affected cities with damages not accounted for yet. So, I do think that the BRL 2 billion funds claimed by the state government is likely to be woefully inadequate.” 

By any measure, the federal response to the disaster has been highly disorganised. Various ministers have resorted to negotiating individually with parliamentary groups in congress, others have chosen to speak directly to governors. State representatives meanwhile have focused their efforts on desperately trying to obtain funds for their constituencies. Amidst this dash to consolidate support and financial aid, the Government has struggled to speak with a clearheaded and unified voice.  

Bahia governor Rui Costa has taken a combative stance against President Bolsonaro, complaining about funding bottlenecks. For the Workers’ Party stalwart, there is also political capital to be made during a year of presential elections. Speaking to residents whose homes had been destroyed he remarked “this is what can happen when you vote Bolsonaro”.  

The disaster points to wider infrastructure deficiencies in Brazil’s fourth most populous state. The law professor commented, “All levels of government should bear some degree of responsibility for having neglected infrastructure investment in the state for many years. Ultimately the extent of the disaster was compounded by the decision of the Federal Government to cut the disaster prevention programme budget implemented by the ministry of regional development by 75% in 2021.” 

“All levels of government should bear some degree of responsibility for having neglected infrastructure investment in the state for many years.”

Law Professor, Federal University of Bahia, Brazil

Officially, the state government has said that 63 motorways showed structural damage, but according to mayors, companies, and truck drivers, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The silver lining could be a much-needed reality check that Bahia cannot continue like this. The agricultural analyst opined, “Agribusiness leaders have been asking for decades to improve railway access to the region, airport terminals with more capacity and completion of works in the states’ ports.” 

But the problem of infrastructure goes beyond transport networks like roads given the urgent structural problems in urban planning, house building and energy infrastructure. If Bahia is to fulfil its economic potential, bring long overdue prosperity to its residents and effectively prepare itself for future environmental disasters, politicians will have to put aside electoral squabbling. In politically polarised Brazil, this is unlikely anytime soon.   

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