Atafona, a tranquil seaside resort north of Rio de Janeiro, suffers from chronic erosion exacerbated by warming that transformed it into an apocalyptic landscape with hundreds of homes destroyed by the sea. Due to a combination of natural and human factors, the sea advances up to six meters per year and has already submerged more than 500 houses in a strip of 2 km. One of the next ones will be that of the businessman Joao Waked Peixoto.
Walking alongside a jumble of beams and tiles, Waked Peixoto shows how the last dwelling that separated his from the sea succumbed: just the bottom of a blue room in which fragments of magazines, a bicycle and other signs of recent life are shaken by the wind. In the risk area, only 180 houses with 302 inhabitants still stand. “When will we have to leave? It’s unknown, the sea advanced three to four meters in 15 days, our wall may not be here next week,” says Waked Peixoto, who moved to Atafona with his family during the pandemic.
Like many residents of Campos dos Goytacazes, a thriving city north of Rio de Janeiro that receives oil royalties, his grandfather built his summer home in nearby Atafona: a spacious shelter with a garden. “It will be a shame to lose this house, which holds the memories of my entire family, my parents, sisters… we all came here,” laments Waked Peixoto. But it will be inevitable.
Among those who still have hope is retired Sonia Ferreira, 77, owner of an imposing two-story house, which she had to leave when the water began to eat away at her back wall, in 2019. A widow, she moved into a small apartment she built on her own land, waiting for a solution. When I arrive, “I will paint the house again and live here again,” he says.
Extreme and chronic erosion
Extreme erosion, which places Atafona among the 4% of the world’s coastline where the sea consumes more than five meters per year, has now been exacerbated by climate change, with “sea-level rise” in the long term and “in the short and medium-term with exceptional hangovers and prolonged periods of rainfall and droughts”, explains geologist Eduardo Bulhoes, from the Fluminense Federal University.
But the spa has suffered from a “chronic problem” for decades. “Man’s use of the Paraíba do Sul River [one of the main ones in southeastern Brazil] over the past 40 years drastically reduced the volume of its waters and its ability to transport sand to the mouth,” in Atafona, Bulhoes explains, listing activities such as mining and diversions for agriculture.
With this “deficit” of sediments, the beach does not naturally replenish itself and gives in to the advance of the sea. And to this is added the construction of houses on the coast, which eliminates the first line of natural defense: sand dunes and vegetation. Without that protection, the sea was biting the surface, leaving a cemetery submerged with debris and structures that made any dip dangerous and scared away tourists.
On the other hand, the reduction in the flow of the river also affected the fishermen. “Large boats no longer pass through the river delta … and the money is leaving,” says Elialdo Bastos Meirelles, who chairs a fishermen’s colony of about 600 members. “The river is dead,” he says.
On the one hand, “global warming is causing sea-level rise and making currents and weather patterns more extreme,” geologist Eduardo Bulhoes, from the Fluminense Federal University, told AFP. But beyond the consequences of the climate crisis, Atafona has a “chronic problem” that has been making a dent for decades and aggravating the situation. The Paraiba do Sul River, whose mouth is at Atafona, has been reduced due to mining, agriculture and other activities that drain it upstream.
Over the past 40 years human activity has drastically reduced the volume of the river, meaning it carries less sand to Atafona.
“In the last 40 years, that has drastically reduced the volume of the river, which means it transports less sand to Atafona,” says Bulhoes. With less sand, the beaches of the town have stopped regenerating naturally, ceding land to the sea. Construction on the coast has only made the problem worse, by removing sand dunes and vegetation, beaches have run out of natural defenses.
Eliade Bastos MeirellesLeader of a local fishing community This situation of extreme erosion has been disastrous for the tourism and fishing industries. “Large boats can no longer pass through the river delta… and the money disappeared with them. The river is dead,” explains Elialdo Bastos Meirelles, leader of a local fishing community.
No projects of salvation
Local authorities have studied several plans to curb erosion, including building levees to reduce the force of ocean waves and transporting sand from the river delta to the beach. But the projects exist only on paper so far. The county’s deputy environment secretary, Alex Ramos, told AFP that no one had yet reached a final solution and that any plan would have to first get approval from environmental regulators.
Although a social assistance program has been launched to help families who have lost their homes to erosion. Many neighbors criticize and accuse the local government of a lack of political will. “We continue to hear promises, but this town has been abandoned,” concludes Vieira.