ATAFONA, Brazil – Vultures roam the sands of the Brazilian resort town of Atafona amid the ruins of the last houses destroyed by the sea, whose relentless rise has transformed the local coastline into an apocalyptic landscape.
The Atlantic Ocean is advancing an average of six meters (nearly 20 feet) per year in this small town north of Rio de Janeiro, which has long been subject to extreme erosion, now exacerbated by climate change.
The sea has already submerged more than 500 homes, turning the once idyllic coastline into an underwater graveyard of destroyed structures.
One of the next to lose his home will be Joao Waked Peixoto.
Walking through the messy rubble of what was once his neighbors’ home, he gazes at what remains: a fragment of a blue-painted room strewn with tattered magazines, a bicycle, and other remnants of life. “When should we leave? It’s an unknown,” he said. “The sea has advanced three or four meters in 15 days. Our wall might not last until next week.
Waked Peixoto’s grandfather built the house as a vacation home, a seaside getaway with large bedrooms and a garden.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Waked Peixoto and his family moved out full time. But now it seems inevitable that the house will be swallowed up by the sea. “It would be a shame to lose this house, because it contains so many memories of all my family,” he says.
Atafona, a town of some 6,000 people, has long suffered from extreme erosion. It is part of the 4% of coastlines in the world that lose five meters or more each year. The problem is exacerbated by global warming, which is causing sea levels to rise and making currents and weather more extreme, says geologist Eduardo Bulhoes of the Federal University of Fluminense. But Atafona has had a “chronic problem” for decades, he says.
The Paraiba do Sul River, whose mouth is in Atafona, has narrowed due to mining, agriculture, and other activities that drain it upstream. “Over the past 40 years, this has significantly reduced the volume of the river, which means it carries less sand to Atafona,” says Bulhoes.
With less sand, the city’s beaches have stopped regenerating naturally, giving way to the sea.
Construction on the coast has only aggravated the problem, removing sand dunes and vegetation, the natural defenses of the beaches.
The result was disastrous for the tourism and fishing industries. “The big boats can no longer cross the river delta…and the money has disappeared with them,” says Elialdo Bastos Meirelles, leader of a local fishing community of some 600 people.
“The river is dead.
Local authorities have considered several plans to curb erosion, including building seawalls to reduce the force of ocean waves and transporting sand from the river delta to the beach.
Bulhoes, the geologist, proposed the latter, which is inspired by similar initiatives in the Netherlands, Spain and the United States. But the projects only exist for the moment on paper.
The county’s undersecretary for the environment, Alex Ramos, told AFP that no one had yet found a definitive solution and that any plan would first have to get approval from environmental regulators.
Meanwhile, the county has launched a social assistance program that pays 1,200 reais ($230) per month to more than 40 families who have lost their homes to erosion. But critics accuse the local government of a lack of political will.
“We keep hearing promises,” says Veronica Vieira, head of the neighborhood association SOS Atafona. “But this town has been abandoned. It’s an apocalypse. It makes you want to cry.”