Al Jazeera Blogs


Rio de Janeiro underwater

Three things to remember before asking how a city that can't handle heavy rains can handle the World Cup and Olympics.

Last modified: 12 Apr 2010 05:11
Photo by Reuters
It's been a less than a week since Rio de Janeiro was thrust into absolute chaos with relentless downpours that flooded the city, killed 229 people (as of Sunday night), injured nearly 200, caused over 11,000 people to evacuate their homes, and left an unknown number buried under the earth in mudslides.
Sergio Cabral, the governor of the state of Rio, said it will take weeks to get the city back to normal. Heavy machinery backhoes continue to work around-the-clock to clear mud from the hardest-hit areas.
In the community of Morro do Bumba – a shantytown built on top of a landfill - more than 50 houses were buried in mudslides. On Sunday it was reported by Rio daily O Globo that researchers have determined at least 18 of Rio’s slums are built on top of old landfills, making the earth underneath vulnerable to giving way during heavy rains.
And Rio’s mayor on Sunday again called for the immediate relocation of thousands of people living in slums who are at risk.
From the outside looking in, it might be easy to say, ‘Why did they let the slums be built in the first place, and why not simply remove them and solve the problem?’ And it might also be tempting a simply say, ‘How can Rio be ready to host the World Cup in 2014 and Olympics in 2016 when they can’t even prevent their city from being swamped by rains?’
These points deserve more careful understanding. Here are three worth noting:
Rio slums, or favelas as they are famously known, present a complex set of issues. It's not as simple as "relocate everyone". Rio's population is about 6.2 million, of which about 1.3 million live in favelas. That is one out of every five people who call a favela home.
Moreover, it's easy to get the perception from documentaries and news reports that everyone in the slums is a teenage drug dealer with an AK-47 and ski mask. Wrong. I would wager that 95 per cent of people who live in the slums of Rio are honest, hard working people who do jobs such as cleaning hotel rooms, driving buses, waiting on tables, paving the roads, and the like. Next time you are at a fancy hotel bar in Copacabana, it's very likely the man or woman serving you the caipirinha lives in a favela.
Yes, there are bad guys in the slums. We all know that. Unfortunately while they might make up five per cent of the population (and a very dangerous five per cent), they get 95 per cent of the media coverage.
Because the first thing every foreign journalist does when they arrive in Rio is run up to the favela to interview the local drug dealer. But let's keep in mind the overwhelming majority of the people are just trying to make ends meet.
The thing that strikes me about the people I meet in favelas is how normal they are. They are real people, with real lives, and concerns, and if they are relocated they need to be given real, long-term solutions.
Because while Rio has an abundance of many things, the one thing that is in short supply is affordable housing. Honest long-term solutions are needed to deal with this issue, because, after all, many of the people who live in the favelas are the ones who make the city of Rio run on time everyday. So simply relocating everyone is not a suitable or serious option. Newsflash: Favelas in Rio are here to stay.
It's a political issue: If one in every five people in Rio lives in a favela, that means one in every five potential voters in Rio lives in a favela, and politicians know this very well. For many years the political establishment in Rio has bent over backwards to carve out their piece of constituency, possibly avoiding difficult decisions that might upset that voting bloc.
One longtime Rio activist told me the political elite have a routine when it comes to the voters living the favelas: "Keep them happy so they will vote for you, avoid difficult decisions that will upset them, and avoid any sort of real long-term solutions. Win election. Repeat four years later." As the Guardian pointed out in a recent article, one of Brazil’s most influential newsmagazines took this issue head-on this week.
World Cup 2014. Olympics 2016. I have blogged previously about how anytime anything happens in Rio there will be cries of "how can this city host the two biggest sporting events in the world when they can’t even blah blah blah". A lot of news will be put into that picture frame. Rio – and Brazil for that matter - is under the microscope until 2016. 
People who live in Rio probably know full well that the city is often a chaotic mess, but in the end the one thing it knows how to do is pull off a good party. We all remember how Rio hosted an estimated 1.3 million – yes, million - people on Copacabana beach for a Rolling Stones concert in 2006. The city flawlessly pulled off hosting the Pan American Games in 2007, despite criticism that the city was not ready.
I remember how city workers were installing scaffolding for TV cameras on Copacabana beach at 3am on the morning of the Olympics 2016 announcement, almost like someone decided the night before "Geez, we might actually win this thing!" And as we all know, Rio did. And it was an unforgettable image at that very moment it was announced.
Every year Rio hosts that little party called carnival. Remember that? And every year it's a chaotic scramble, but every time, in the end, Rio manages and everyone goes home saying: "Wow – only in Rio." This is the Carioca style. Get used to it.
In the end, the hope is that the flooding of last week will force the city to be better prepared for world events it will host in the future.
But more importantly – much more importantly - the terrible human suffering will force a broader conversation on proper housing in one of the world's great cities. With the expectation to improve the living conditions of the millions of Brazilians at risk, who keep the city moving on a daily basis, and who will call Rio de Janeiro home before 2014 and long after 2016.