You may have seen it on the news already: Rio de Janeiro has been flooded by tropical rains yesterday. Thick black clouds hanging between the usually picturesque green hills, cars being carried away by rivers running where main roads used to be, people crowding stairways or doors watching the waters and wondering how they will get where they are supposed to go… right, you’ve probably seen the pictures.
Or a video:
This is not what you expect when you think of the “Marvellous City”, right?
So what about the Myth of the city of Samba, Beaches, and year-round Sun? Remember the song “It never rains in California, but girl, don’t they warn ya, it pours… man it pours” ? Well, I’d say this is something Rio and California have in common!
In the end, Rio does have a tropical climate, and there is a reason why all the picturesque hills beautifully distributed in the blue water of the sea of the bay of Guanabara are so lush and green: a lot of water. Now the reason we usually think of Rio in the sun is this: It does rain, and more than in many other places of the world. But the rain is heavy and short and once the sky clears up the sun is so hot it dries the streets and beaches and heats the city up so fast that you forget it ever rained. Until the next rain comes. And it will, eventually.
This “forgetting it ever rained” is a symptom visitors of Rio share with inhabitants and as well the local politicians. And this is where things get critical. In the first days or January 2010, heavy rains caused a mudslide in Angra dos Reis, a little beach town at a 3 hours’ drive from Rio de Janeiro. In Sao Paulo, Brazil’s 11 million metropolis, it has been raining every day for 45 days in a row during December and January this year, and most of these days the city was flooded. In 2008, extraordinarily heavy rains caused a mudslide which left many victims and more homeless in Blumenau, a town in Southern Brazil, and overflowing rivers destroyed bridges and practically cut off the southernmost state of Brazil, Santa Catarina. According to news and politicians, every time the reason is because “the quantity of rain that fell in an hour was more than was expected for a month”. The time span mentioned in this phrase varies, but you hear it again and again. I sometimes ask myself: Why not expect more rain? And prepare for it?
I recently read an article in a popular Brazilian magazine asking pretty much the same question. It referred to the event in Angra dos Reis in January 2010, where over 40 people died and many houses were destroyed by the mudslide. It stated “The cause for the disaster was not the rain, but the fact that the people were in a place where they mustn’t have been when it rained.” To be precise: they were at the foot of a steep hill of rock covered by a thin layer of soil and high – and heavy – Atlantic rainforest vegetation with no deep roots. The hill reached out picturesquely into the sea, but the soil and vegetation uphill were not connected well enough with the rock below, and when the rain came, they slid into the sea. According to the article, of the about 300 houses at the foot of the hill, only a small percentage had been build with official permission by the authorities, and even those probably shouldn’t even have had this permission had there been a proper geological analysis of the construction site.
As a side note: in the Amazon and the Pantanal, which suffer much heavier rainfalls over much longer periods of time, nature deals with it without any big disasters. Flora, Fauna and the local human inhabitants have adapted to the cycle and respect it, and even take advantage of it. The variety of plants, animals and birds that only exist in these unique ecosystems are the best proof. It is only where man tries to take control, to build big cities and shape the land according to his wishes, where the whole system becomes so vulnerable.
Another fact that startled me in the article was this: The Federal Budget of Brazil does consider the climate and lays aside millions of reais for “Disaster Prevention” every year, but less than 10% of this budget get used by the politicians. I repeat: Apparently, as soon as the sun comes out, local politicians forget that it ever rained. At the same time, every year, the amount spent on Emergency Help for the victims of Disasters is higher than the budget that had been planned for the prevention of disasters in the first place.
The ability of its people to live in the present and not get stuck in too many worries about the past and the future is an ability I personally admire Brazil for, and is something many more developed countries can learn from. But as with anything, you can go over the top with this one, too. Today the rains ceased in Rio de Janeiro, but there are still black clouds hanging heavily over the hilltops.
For Rio and its people and visitors, I hope the clouds disappear soon and give way to the usual clear blue summer sky. But maybe it would be good it those clouds continued to hang above some people’s heads for another while.
With best wishes