Porto Alegre floods

People watch the waters of the Guaíba lake flooding the downtown area of Porto Alegre.


A total of 336 municipalities in our state of Rio Grande do Sul are currently declared disaster areas. Families, stranded for a week without access to clean water, food, or medicine, are being rescued. Volunteers from across the country mobilized to our region, bringing boats and kayaks to aid in search-and-rescue efforts for people and animals. 

After over two weeks, the river levels rose again in our state of Rio Grande do Sul after more heavy rains last weekend. The Taquari and Caí rivers have burst their banks and are causing fresh flooding in the interior of the state. More than half a million people have been displaced from their homes and 151 are confirmed to have died in the floods.

The overwhelming devastation, loss of life, and destruction of homes and livelihoods can shatter the most steadfast resolve. It's a time when despair whispers loudly, echoing the fragility of existence and the forces of nature. 

God, have mercy.

In the context of a natural disaster, despair feels like an engulfing shadow, casting doubt on the resilience of human spirit. Yet, there flickers a flame of hope. It emerges from the solidarity of communities coming together, the courage of first responders risking their lives, and the kindness of strangers offering aid. 

Since the first community was hit, we have witnessed and been part of an unprecedented wave of solidarity at many levels. Local churches, civil defense, state security forces, civil society organizations, thousands of volunteers who show up at the shelters with their goodwill, are working tirelessly to offer shelter, aid, and supplies to dozens of thousands of people. 

Fundraising campaigns for money, clothing, and food are being widely promoted locally, regionally, nationally and around the world. In the darkest hours, hope becomes a beacon of light, guiding those affected toward the possibility of renewal and recovery.

But where do we find hope when all we see around is pain, suffering, despair and sorrow? Here in Porto Alegre, hope is coming from the eyes of the ones around. And it shines brightly! It comes from the eyes of the old man sitting with his dog on the roof of his house as the rescue team boat approaches. The look of the young mother with four children as she is welcomed to the shelter and her family receives the first meal. The look of the ones organized in small groups in their neighborhoods trying to offer first aid to their neighbors, working over 20 hours per day and not willing to give up. 

At many times during these days, all of us feel that the smallest thing we do not do to help can somehow be an obstacle for someone else to find a safer condition. 

The current floods marked the fourth such environmental disaster in Brazil in the last 12 months, following similar calamities that killed 75 people in July, September, and November 2023.

And, of course, I can’t help but think that what is currently hitting us is the merciless whip of climate change. As a member of the World Council of Churches (WCC) communication department, I have covered many UN climate summits. I am familiar with the language of these talks, the mechanisms, the politics and the growing burning issues. But I feel that something changes inside you also in the way you look at the climate issue when you live something like we are living here in South Brazil.

My best friend shared in one of his social media channels the other day a thought that I liked very much. It said that a disaster is what happens when a powerful phenomenon, even if caused by nature, finds an unprepared human population. In other words, a hurricane is not a disaster, but a hurricane hitting a city without solid buildings, shelters and adequate drainage is. Disaster, therefore, is never just natural.

After 36 years of United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change annual reports, one can’t claim ignorance about the impact of climate change on the incidence of factors that lead to devastating episodes like the one we experienced. 

In 2007, I was part of an ecumenical delegation organized by the WCC that visited New Orleans. It was exactly two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area. The images from the Lower Ninth Ward, the most affected area of the city in 2005, came back to my mind as I saw them being replicated in the place where I live, hurting people who I call by the first name. 

In the face of such adversity, the human spirit reveals a remarkable strength. People find resilience in the bonds of family and community, drawing upon inner reserves of courage and determination. 

While despair may linger, hope persists as a powerful force, reminding us that even in the aftermath of devastation, there is the potential for rebuilding, healing, and a brighter tomorrow.

It was here in Porto Alegre that the WCC held its 9th Assembly in 2006. One of the songs from the prayer services was written by Rodolfo Gaede Neto, who had been one of my professors at the Lutheran theological seminary in São Leopoldo. Every now and then, I see this this song being used in ecumenical celebrations, and it always brought me great memories of that beautiful WCC assembly held in my home city. However, those lyrics, for his simple and yet deep intercessional approach, have now gained a different meaning to me. 

For the troubles and the sufferings of the world,
God, we call upon your mercy. 
The whole creation’s laboring in pain!
Lend an ear to the rising cry for help
from oppressed and hopeless people.
Come! Hasten your salvation, healing love!
We pray for peace, the blessed peace
that comes from making justice,
to cover and embrace us.
Have mercy, Lord!
We pray for power,
the power that will sustain your people’s witness
until your Kingdom come,
Kyrie eleison.[1]

Amid unprecedented flooding in Brazil, churches are often the first responders (WCC interview, 16 May 2024)

WCC expresses sympathy, solidarity for people and churches of Southern Brazil (WCC news release, 8 May 2024)

[1] Pelas dores deste mundo”, by Rodolfo Gaede Neto. From Em Tua Graça”, the prayer book of the World Council of Churches 9th Assembly, held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, 2006. The English translation is by Simei Monteiro and Jorge Lockward.

About the author :

Dr Marcelo Schneider serves at the World Council of Churches (WCC) as programme executive for church and ecumenical relations and communication. A member of the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil, Schneider has a doctorate in systematic theology with focus on ecumenical social ethics. He is the editor of the WCC blog.


The impressions expressed in the blog posts are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.