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Three climate adaptation lessons from Brazil’s cities
As the impacts of climate change intensify, cities can learn from best practices to become more resilient to climate impacts. Photo by Fede Cabrera/Flickr.

As the impacts of climate change intensify, cities can learn from best practices to become more resilient to climate impacts. Photo by Fede Cabrera/Flickr.

Brazil’s cities, home to 85% of the country’s population, are already feeling the effects of climate change. Intense rains and floods in Rio de Janeiro are causing fatal landslides with high social and infrastructure costs. Temperatures are climbing to record-breaking highs in Porto Alegre, and cities in the Southeast are facing one of the country’s worst droughts in history. In total, 463 of Brazil’s cities – including 11 state capitals – lie in coastal areas threatened from rising sea levels, posing serious risks to more than 50 million people, or roughly 26% of Brazil’s total population.

But as experts from the World Resources Institute (WRI) recently learned, some cities are also starting to take action to adapt. As part of a new stream of work under the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, a team visited three Brazilian state capitals: Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre and Brasília. These cities are already exploring how they can build communities that are resilient to flooding, drought, and other climate impacts. Discussions with officials underscored three adaptation policy and planning needs in Brazil: mobilizing networks and resources, leveraging governance and people, and harnessing data and tools.

1) Leveraging networks and resources

Policy makers, planners and city officials in Brazil are keen on building capacity by working together, rather than working in isolation. This collaboration stretches even beyond national borders. For example:

  • As chair of the C40 network, Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes aims to share successful urban policies – such as implementing bus rapid transit (BRT) routes – and replicate these initiatives across C40 member cities around the world.
  • Porto Alegre and Rio de Janeiro are working with the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities network to develop resilience plans. The network, which helps cities become more resilient to physical, social and economic challenges, helps integrate adaptation across municipal policies and departments.
  • In Brasília, policy makers are interested in learning about adaptation planning in other countries such as India, Mexico and the United States. Karen Cope, Director for Climate Change and Environmental Quality at Brazil’s Ministry of Environment, had just returned from the UNFCCC National Adaptation Plan Forum, where she exchanged resiliency lessons with other planners.

2) Governance and people

According to officials in all three cities, adaptation is not simply a technical matter: governance and people play key roles in bringing initiatives and policies to life.

Historically, poor urban planning and governance have often led to outcomes that hurt communities rather than help. Cities are now working to create new governance structures to help them better respond to disasters and minimize citizens’ vulnerability to climate change.

For example, the city of Rio de Janeiro established the Centre for Operations (COR) in December 2010 in response to fatal landslides. The center operates on a 24-hour basis, monitoring indicators such as rainfall, fire hazards, and temperature. COR’s governance model is innovative, integrating 30 agencies (municipal, state and utilities) to create multi-disciplinary decision-making. The Centre actively engages communities through training and proactively communicates with citizens: it provides alerts through news and social media channels and crowd-sources data from citizens through the city’s mobile app, Olhos da Cidade (City Watch).

These measures have enabled the city to accelerate and improve the effectiveness of its disaster response, and the city government is now looking to develop more long-term resiliency plans. Pedro Junqueira, COR’s Chief Executive, explained, “Above and beyond technology, having the right people sit at the same table and share knowledge, information and experience, has helped us to vastly improve the effectiveness of our disaster response rate.”

3) Data and tools

City officials are harnessing data and technology to improve decision-making, particularly within the context of uncertainty regarding future climate impacts.

The city of Rio de Janeiro works with a range of data and tools to decrease response time to natural disasters. It’s installed an early warning system of pluviometers to measure rainfall, alerting city officials once rainfall reaches 40 millimeters and warning citizens of potential floods through siren calls and mobile phone texts. City officials have also mapped vulnerable citizens by type of disability and residence so emergency responders can reach them quickly. Due to this sophisticated data and planning system, the city hasn’t seen any natural disaster-related deaths since 2010.

City-level technological solutions like Rio’s pluviometers are also garnering support at the national level. CEMADEN, the national Center for Disaster Monitoring and Alert, is now piloting Pluviometers in the CommunityThe project will install semi-automatic pluviometers to be managed by local citizens in nearly 800 communities throughout Brazil. Data will be collected to create online, open-data national monitoring maps.

Scaling up effective adaptation

Of course, these are just a few lessons from a few Brazilian cities. There’s still a lot more work to be done to make Brazil’s urban areas truly climate-resilient, and cities still have more to do to engage all the relevant adaptation stakeholders, from NGOs to citizens to academics and business people.

Adapting to the impacts of climate change will ultimately require action at the local, national, and even international levels. But by learning from cities’ successes, we can work toward building climate-resilient communities around the world.

This post originally appeared on WRI Insights.

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