Rio Aladago – The Flooded City

How well does your city move people? Chances are complaints about the inefficiencies of public transit pop up daily. After all, you interact with cars, roads, buses, and light rail constantly. At the same time, other systems of movement that go more unnoticed are essential to the functioning of the city organism. How well does your city move waste and energy? How well does it move water?

Here in Rio de Janeiro water is a constant of life. Whether flocking to the ocean, complaining of the clouds (or lack of cloud cover), or wondering when it will rain, Cariocas (residents of Rio) are surrounded by water. It doesn’t rain here as often as you might imagine, as in, say, the daily downpours of Singapore, but it is tropical. Unfortunately when the rain comes the saturated ground turns anything more than few hour’s drizzle into a potential disaster.

Tuesday night it rained as much in one night as it normally does in a month. Rio is a huge city filled with micro-climates due to the dramatic mountains that corral it. In Barra da Tijuca, a new area in the south, it seemed like a sprinkle. For the residents of the North, it was a downpour. Those living in this predominantly poor area awoke to find several feet of muddy water in their streets and homes. The extend of the flooding is astonishing. Entire neighborhoods are underwater.

With roads and the metro system flooded out, the city ground to a halt. The mayor proclaimed a state of emergency and encouraged people not to leave their houses. Businesses shut down. It was the tropical equivalent of a snow day but with disastrous consequences.

As news coverage played on repeat throughout the morning, one fact became apparent: the flooding was primarily in poor neighborhoods. “This isn’t anything new,” explained resident Fernanda. “This is a lot more rain than normal, but this type of thing happens once a month, more maybe in the summer.” The rain comes, the city stops. This time three people were reported dead. It could be more if the rain continues and starts landslides.

The exasperation of the residents in flooding areas was evident as plumes of smoke began curling up from the bairros. In the neighborhood of Novo Iguaçu people were lighting flotsam and abandoned cars on fire in protest. With whole houses practically underwater, some residents literally lost everything. This rain was the worst in some 20 years, asserted authorities in O Globo newspaper. Still, the same areas of the city had already experienced minor flooding the week before.

Protesters blocking the freeway exits.

Despite the network of canals crossing the city, Rio’s ability to deal with this predictable natural phenomenon is woefully incompetent. Or, perhaps worse, it is consciously negligent. In feverish preparation for next year’s world cup and the 2016 Olympics, half-finished construction projects litter the city. Piles of sand and concrete block drainage paths and exacerbate the already present drainage problems in the city. Scientists predict that extreme weather patters like yesterday’s rains will only become more common as a result of climate change.

What will it take to instigate real change in Rio?

Present again is what has happened when a city prepares for the global eye of a mega event like the Olympics. New bus infrastructure, new facilities and buildings crop up in one part of the city, primarily the South in Barra. But these benefits have no significance for the majority of its citizens, especially its more vulnerable parts. These are ephemeral investments responding to a one-time need. Funds that could (potentially) go to providing better services to under-served communities–real needs, like flood control–are instead going new shopping malls and athlete’s villages. And thus Rio continues to expand south, running away from its problems.


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