On 5 November 2015, a waste dam at an iron-ore mine in southeastern Brazil collapsed, unleashing a tide of slurry that killed 19 people, displaced hundreds more and polluted 650 kilometres of fertile valleys and estuaries before spewing into the ocean.
Two years later, fishing communities near the mouth of the still-contaminated Rio Doce on the Atlantic coast continue to struggle as a result of Brazil’s worst-ever environmental disaster.
“The social structure of this region has been turned upside down,” says Joca Thomé, a resident of the hard-hit coastal village of Regência and a leader of official efforts to monitor the damage to local biodiversity.
“Many families here lived from fishing, but because of the risk of contamination it is still prohibited,” Thomé told UN Environment. “Tourists stay away because the water quality is low and surfing is not recommended. A few still come, but only to look at what has happened to the river and the ocean.”
Although the number of dam failures has declined over many years, the number of serious failures has increased, despite advances in the engineering knowledge that can prevent them.
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