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By Martin Kocandrle, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO – The tragic floods that occurred in Rio de Janeiro during the week of April 4th did more then remind residents of their vulnerability to nature, it also pointed out weaknesses in Rio’s urban infrastructure, in particular those of the favela communities.

A view of the tragedy from the mudslide in Morro do Bumba, photo by Vladimir Platonow/ABr.

The loss of life that followed the heavy rains is presently estimated to be over 250 people, many of whom were living in Rio’s favelas from the Zona Norte, Zona Sul to Niteroi. These communities were adversely affected primarily because of their high-risk location atop hills that funnel heavy rains into the valleys below.

Houses built in the hills are not only at risk from heavy rains but also from yearly erosion which can reach up to one ton per hectare annually as reported by the Institute of Geosciences (Instituto de Geociencas). This yearly erosion is said to be compounded after a landslide, thus making re-development of affected areas more dangerous.

As a Luta Pelo Paz (Fight for Peace) volunteer explained, “Houses are often built from concrete, brick, and cement. In most cases houses in favelas are built by community members on available land that has not been officially sanctioned by the government. This means that there are no building or land use codes to be followed or enforced.” The result is buildings that have no official safety regulations and can be built in high risk locations.

In the north zone it costs an average of R$25,000 to construct a two floor home. Additional floors can be added to up to a certain limit that is deemed acceptable for the structure. Oftentimes residents will sell the space of their roof for others to build upon, effectively ensuring the likelihood that buildings will be modified after their original construction.

Construction workers are likely to be contracted and have experience in their trade, however they lack the training of architects and professional developers operating in the formal sector. The level of labor creates problems both in original construction and the enduring legacy of the building. There is also little legal recourse for residents to compensate for errors committed by contractors since the building and workers operate outside of the formal sector.

While the structure of the buildings themselves is often sound and solid, the construction of reliable foundations poses problems that are exasperated when construction occurs on the hillsides – not only due to elevation and logistics – but also because of the inevitable erosion of the earth that happens over years.

Residents of Morro do Bumba relocating following the mudslides, photo by Vladimir Platonow/Abr.

The Prefeitura of Rio has struggled to control the sprawl of favela communities into the far reaches of Rio’s lush green hills. The recent events have served to highlight the Prefeitura’s lack of zoning housing and regulating the safety of building practices. Considering that police are often unable to enter certain favelas, the inability to enforce specific building codes is hardly surprising.

Reactions to floods have led to wide spread finger pointing in different directions. Residents are frustrated with the government for failing to provide adequate housing options, while the government has called citizens to task for building in high risk locations despite previous landslides in those exact areas.

Eduardo Paes the mayor of Rio has classified 158 communities as high risk and endeavors to create a plan that relocates residents of those communities deemed to be unsafe. Those being forced to relocate will be provided housing and a monthly allowance for rent. However many residents resent relocation as they have invested money into their homes communities, and relationships.

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