By Helen Trouten Torres, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The pressing issue of flood prevention has once again been brought to the forefront of city politics in the aftermath of Rio’s fifth highest rainfall in fourteen years April 25th. The nine hour storm severely flooded streets, leading to the destruction of many homes, cars and businesses which were overrun by fast-flowing water, mud and debris.
During the storm and flooding, the road system ground to a halt marooning many workers overnight. On the highway Grajaú-Jacarepaguá, one of the city’s main roads for commuters, 600 tons of rock fell blocking the road.
The city entered stage three state of alert on the scale of four levels according to Geo-Rio. In nine hillside neighborhoods, the sirens to alert residents of landslide risk were sounded for the first time since being installed in 60 high-risk areas. According to the Civil Defense Department there were landslides in the hillside communities of JK, Borel, Andarai and Chacrinha.
The Rio Alert Unit, which was launched last December, will not be fully functioning until June of this year and failed to predict the possibility of heavy rain. Once in full operation, the city’s new High Resolution radar will warn of storms 48 hours in advance with 80 percent effectiveness, enabling public safety warnings.
The notoriously flood vulnerable Praça da Bandeira (Flag Square) area near the Maracanã was the worst hit. For the last fifty years it has often been the first area in the city to flood. Crucially, this is the principal junction between north and south of the city and thus integral to the infrastructure for hosting both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
The mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, called Praça da Bandeira an embarrassment to the city and pledged to prioritize works in the area. The mayor stated that Federal Government Funding under the PAC (Growth Acceleration Program) would be used to resolve this historical problem.
However, the funds for this project have not yet been released by the Federal Bank. It is expected that the R$200 million project will take two and a half to three years to complete and is expected to begin later this year.
Paes admitted that the problems caused by heavy rain have become exasperated by the city’s infrastructure and stressed the importance of dredging the rivers and keeping them clean. The work will involve diversion of the Trapicheiro, Joana and Maracanã rivers into large underground reservoirs.
Some Rio residents are skeptical that the project will go far enough to prevent tragedies. Neurologist Professor Osvaldo Nascimento who attends patients across the city explained how his work is regularly hindered by flooding.
Nascimento believes that the “solutions must also involve enlarging the canals in width and depth, moreover, the Government need to finance further relocation of residents of hillside communities all around the Tijuca Forest area to allow for tree replanting in order for the earth to restore its water absorbing function in avoiding landslides”.
Maps show that historically the Centro and Zona Sul (South zone) of Rio had seven lagoons to catch the water from the mountains, and the rivers were much wider. It is these reclaimed land areas that are continually worst affected by the heavy rain indicating the need for the city to return some of the land to the water in a planned way.