Despite new funds, Rio is unprepared for annual summer floods. Overcrowding, poor drainage, and piles of garbage complicate flood-proofing
Sao Paulo, Brazil — Summer is coming to the Southern Hemisphere. In Rio de Janeiro that is a lot more serious than bikinis and beach balls. For Rio natives, summer means rain, flooding, and tragedy. Last year, a record-high rainfall killed 94 people and left 20,000 homeless. Since then, the city government has obtained funding to better protect Rio from the annual rains. But the projects won't be complete until after this year's rains.
``The city has never been so badly prepared for the summer as it is this summer,'' says Luiz Edmundo Leite, municipal works secretary. ``If it rains like last year, the tragedy will be twice as bad.'' This year, he notes, an ongoing three-month strike by city workers has left piled-up trash in hilly areas, blocking the water's downhill flow. Trash is one of the biggest causes of the annual mud slides.
The seasonal rains begin in November and last through February or March. The poor are always the hardest hit. They flock to the city in search of jobs. Unable to afford existing housing, they build homes out of scraps in shantytowns perched on the slopes of Rio's ocean-front mountains. Five decades of uncontrolled urban growth has produced 470 shantytowns. They house one out of four of Rio's roughly 8 million residents.
The government can't control the migration. And until now, city officials have lacked either the funding or the will, or both, to stop the mud slides.
The government hasn't even been able to solve the problems of those who lost their homes nine months ago. ``Our house fell down, but I managed to get my furniture out,'' Maria de Lourdes Ribeiro says. She, her young son, elderly mother, and 31 other families, have been living since March in a former clinic and day-care center consisting of nine rooms and a patio.
She hopes to have her own house by January, back on Telegraph Hill, a shantytown of 40,000 people. Six people died and 586 residents lost their homes there last summer. ``It was a shock at the time,'' Ms. Ribeiro recalls, ``But when I look around, I see people in worse situations. Lots of people lost everything but the clothes they were wearing.''
Mr. Leite says that 3,000 people are still homeless because of last summer's rains, but he has some good news for people like Ribeiro. ``We have never had so much money to protect the city from rain,'' he says. ``The funds for retaining walls come to about 20 times our average annual spending for this.''
Totaling $156 million, the funds come from the World Bank and the Caixa Economica Federal (Federal Savings Bank).
Part of the work to make the city flood-proof has already begun. A $32 million loan from the Caixa is being spent to build retaining walls on hillsides and fix boulders so they won't roll downhill. The Caixa has also earmarked a $28 million loan to rebuild roads destroyed by the rains and to channel rivers.
A third, joint $96 million loan from the Caixa and the World Bank will be used to build retaining walls, repair streets, lay out better drainage systems, and set up replacement house lots for people who are moving from risky hillside sites. The World Bank money will be spent to plant trees, clear trash, survey for risk areas, and educate residents.
This means teaching people not to build in risky areas, not to throw trash down the hillsides, and not to fell trees for wood or allow goats to graze on seedlings. The city plans to enforce laws banning companies from digging up soil to sell as landfill.
No one knows if this year's rains will be as bad as last year's, says Valdo Silva Marques, head of the Brazilian Meteorological Society. Rio needs better weather-forecasting equipment, he says. ``We at the [Rio de Janeiro Federal] University are putting together a project to get funding for a radar facility.'' Costing about $1 million, the radar would permit weathermen to make short-term predictions on rain patterns and warn of especially intense rainfall.