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Rain, Rain Go Away

Rain, Rain
Go Away

Year after year it is the same thing, the annual summer routine of
floods, a phenomenon well-known to Brazilians. But this year as in the past, along with
the certainty that it will rain, the other certainties are that floods will follow, and
there will be excuses.
By Adhemar Altieri

Brazil’s three most populous and economically prominent states were hit hard by floods
in early January. At least 34 people were killed, hundreds injured, and more than
80-thousand became homeless in the southeastern states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and
Minas Gerais. Heavy rain offers only a partial explanation for what happened. Decades of
mismanagement, open disregard for the law, and omission by local administrations have a
lot more to do with this than Mother Nature.

It rains hard in Brazil every year in January, so there’s nothing unpredictable about
what went on last week. For the most part, they’re typical tropical storms: clouds move in
quickly, there’s a heavy downpour that lasts anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or so,
often followed by clear skies as the front moves on. Very hot, humid days, usually
indicate there will be a storm by late afternoon. Normal stuff for anyone who’s been in
the tropics.

This annual summer routine, well-known to Brazilians, apparently isn’t obvious enough
to convince officials to produce anything resembling an adequate level of readiness. On
the contrary, along with the certainty that it will rain, the other certainties are that
floods will follow, and there will be excuses.

The routine includes government officials insisting they’ve spent millions on flood
control projects, which didn’t work because it just rained too hard. At that point, a
weather expert is summoned, to provide data showing that a week’s worth of rain came down
within an hour or two. The conclusion, then, is that nothing could have prevented what
happened…

Trouble is, occasional very heavy downpours are also not unusual year after year, so
the fact one happens should certainly not come as a surprise, nor be used as an
explanation. If chances are good that heavy rains will come, that’s what administrators
must prepare for. Instead, successive governments at all levels deal with the consequences
and not the causes. Or work to accommodate the status quo, but seldom to change it.

How hard it rains matters less than other elements that are key to explain flooding
somewhere in southern Brazil just about every year. It doesn’t require an urban
development degree to notice, for example, that there are serious problems with the way
urban areas in Brazil are put together. And this country’s largest metropolitan area and
one of the world’s largest cities—São Paulo—is a perfect example.

Three major rivers fed by smaller streams and creeks cut the city, and all have
construction or roads right up to their margins. In other words, their flood plains are
fully and densely occupied, which is tantamount to asking to be under water. Sure enough,
the same neighborhoods and stretches of riverside freeway are affected every year when the
rainy season arrives. Why are these areas occupied, in an obvious defiance of common
sense? Because as recent municipal corruption episodes in São Paulo have made abundantly
clear, developers and individuals have done just about anything they wanted in this city
over the years, provided there was a big enough payoff to a city official.

Decades of this have even contributed to the city’s appearance and social layout:
better neighborhoods higher up and out of flood water range, low income down a bit lower,
and slums often alongside rivers and creeks. Naturally, when there’s a flood, the poorest
are first to be hit. And it’s easy to spot areas where floods happen every year. There are
homes built with doors higher than ground level—the height flood waters usually
reach—,properties with walls around them and stairways to get over the
wall—again, to keep the inside dry—, and homes with rubber seals around gates,
doors and windows.

In extreme cases, there are homes with special "flood rooms", put together
every year during the rainy season, with all furniture either suspended from the ceiling
or supported on ladders and scaffolding so the flood water can come in and out and not
damage the contents. There are also properties where owners have installed pumps to remove
the flood water.

Moving people elsewhere is pretty well out of the question—improper land
occupation is now far too big a problem in the city. There are no estimates of how many
people live in flood-prone areas, but here’s an indication: state government figures show
that over a million people in greater São Paulo occupy lands that, by law, should be free
of any urban development because there are fresh water springs underground. Building on
those lands compromises the city’s fresh water supply. In 1998, faced with the prospect of
moving these people, or amending the law to make their homes legal, the government chose
the latter—a move that many environmentalists saw as encouragement for further
illegal land occupations in the future.

Faced with a situation that can hardly be changed, city administrations can only look
for ways to minimize the problem. One creative solution being implemented in São Paulo
involves building huge underground water reservoirs to catch the runoff before it reaches
the rivers. However these reservoirs, called piscinões—translates into big
pools—are expensive propositions, and it will be years before enough of them can be
built. The other problem with piscinões, according to some politicians, is that
they’re underground: people don’t see them, so they don’t work as well to earn recognition
and votes as, say, a new bridge or expressway…

What goes on in São Paulo can be multiplied by however many cities there are in
Brazil. The trends are similar, erratic urban development and poor planning equally
obvious, and corrupt practices vary little from place to place. This combination, more
than any predictable summer rainfall, goes much further to explain why chaos results when
just about any city, large or small, is hit by a typical January tropical storm.

What happened in one city badly affected by the rain—the upscale mountain resort
town of Campos do Jordão—is most telling. A posh getaway that earns most of its
revenue from tourism, the city has been suffering, on a smaller scale, from many of the
problems that make São Paulo so susceptible to flooding, with one important addition:
extensive illegal construction on hillsides, by both the poor with shanty towns and the
upper class with luxury residences. This type of construction eliminates the vegetation
that holds the soil in place, resulting in deadly mudslides. In Campos do Jordão, at
least eight people died, and close to 500 homes were destroyed.

It’s raining hard as I conclude this article, and it will surely continue to rain
throughout January. It is, after all, the rainy season. Surely the rains will come again
next year. And unless some serious plans are made to face the problem, southern Brazilian
cities will remain stuck in this annual routine of unnecessary destruction and personal
loss, including the loss of lives as was the case this year. The annual excuses have
become as predictable as the rain itself. Accepting them to explain away what happens is
downright criminal. If Brazilians are lucky—or, if they scream for it loud enough,
some of the candidates in next September’s nationwide municipal elections might actually
sit down and put together serious, long-term proposals to end this useless suffering.

Adhemar Altieri is a veteran with major news outlets in Brazil, Canada
and the United States. He holds a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Northwestern
University in Evanston, Illinois, and spent ten years with CBS News reporting from Canada
and Brazil. Altieri is a member of the Virtual Intelligence Community, formed by The
Greenfield Consulting Group to identify future trends for Latin America. He is also the
editor of InfoBrazil (http://www.infobrazil.com),
an English-language weekly e-zine with analysis and opinions on Brazilian politics and
economy. You can reach the author at editors@infobrazil.com
 

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