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Case study: Rio Flood Reconstruction and Prevention Project

Mohan Munasinghe, Braz Menezes, and Martha Preece

Until the Rio Flood Reconstruction and Prevention Project, disaster-related projects funded by the World Bank focused primarily on reconstruction - especially immediate, short-term recovery. The Rio project was notable as a targeted effort to reduce disaster vulnerability by promoting long-term multisectoral development strategies. It helped confirm that reconstruction projects must address specific disaster vulnerabilities as well as cross-sectoral needs in improving urban environmental management. The project represents a significant step toward developing a strategy for long-term prevention and mitigation of natural disasters and environmental degradation. It is also a good example of an effort to develop support for long-term environmental policies by strengthening indigenous managerial and planning capabilities - something that was not possible previously through short-term recovery projects.

In February 1988, unusually heavy rains fell in the metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second most important economic pole and second largest city. In some areas, the equivalent of three months’ annual rainfall fell in less than 24 hours. By March 10, the resulting flood and landslides had left about 289 dead, 734 injured, and 18,560 homeless, and had extensively damaged physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, canals, drainage networks, dikes, water and sewerage networks, electric power networks, factories, and commercial establishments). The physical losses severely disrupted Rio’s economic activity, particularly in the northern part of the metropolitan region, and left the predominantly low-income population with limited access to schools, health facilities, and basic sanitation. This had been the heaviest recorded rainfall since 1966, the time of the last flood and landslide disaster in the metropolitan region.

The severity of the disaster can be attributed largely to the region’s vulnerability to natural hazards. Environmental degradation - resulting from the unplanned expansion of human settlements, faulty construction, congested drainage, and inadequate maintenance - contributed heavily to the event’s catastrophic outcome. Poverty was also linked to both the causes and consequences of the disaster. The poor of Rio de Janeiro - who live in such high-risk areas as steeply sloping hillsides, landfills, and floodplains - became both the perpetrators and victims of environmental degradation. Poverty and poor environmental management continue to place the city’s population at risk from natural hazards.

In 1989, the population of the metropolitan region was about 10.2 million; roughly one-sixth of the region’s families live in poverty (on less than three minimum salaries a month). Low-income human settlements have spread rapidly in unsafe, environmentally susceptible areas. Unplanned squatter settlements (favelas) have developed along the narrow coastal strip and across the coastal mountain range. Located on steep hillsides, they often perch precariously above the city and in lowland areas along riverbanks in the flood-prone Baixada Fluminense region north of the city.

Increasing urban poverty has placed heavy demands on national and local institutions and infrastructure, and basic needs for housing and services have not been met. Local institutions for urban environmental planning are mostly weak and do not coordinate their activities. Planning, programming, and budgeting are inadequate and there are no reliable information systems or trained technical staff. Investment decisions are often politically guided, which has led to inefficient resource allocation and poorly targeted spending.

On much of the city’s periphery, especially in favelas, the supply of services has been affected by flawed infrastructure planning, inadequate investment in infrastructure, several years of neglect in management, and poor or nonexistent maintenance of facilities. Drainage networks are severely blocked by silt and uncollected solid wastes, and they overflow, depositing garbage and raw sewage on precariously constructed squatter settlements. Inappropriate disposal of solid wastes and uncollected garbage - about 5,400 tons a day in the metropolitan region - became raw material for the landslides of February 1988, burying homes and sweeping away hillside squatter settlements. To compound the problem, most municipal refuse goes to open dumps, which are often occupied by squatters who have no formal access to land. These landfills are hazardous sites for construction because the soil is unstable, so they are susceptible to runoff and erosion. Uncontrolled wastewater ends up in nearby drains or streets, further degrading already unstable land. Landslides and flooding are common because these environmentally sensitive areas are highly susceptible to rain washout.

Poor environmental and disaster planning

The accelerated process of urban growth has been a burden on the natural environment, accelerating the depletion of natural forests and destroying vegetative cover. Steep slopes have also been stripped of vegetation as the result of illegal mineral extraction by the economy’s informal sector. Inadequate drainage systems and infrastructure have depleted the bare soil’s capacity to absorb water, accelerating runoff and exacerbating landslides.

The degradation of the urban environment - mostly because of institutional inaction and political conflict - coupled with physical damage to health facilities and sanitation networks during the floods, sharply increased the risk of epidemics. Floodwaters contaminated with garbage and human waste led to widespread outbreaks of leptospirosis, hepatitis, typhoid fever, and other gastrointestinal diseases.

Weak policy analysis and program development, inefficient targeting of resources, ineffective implementation, inappropriate and unenforced legislation, and institutional friction have accentuated conflicts among institutions and between government and users. Policy-makers have focused on short-term approaches to resource allocation. Projects are largely unsustainable because they must compete for the scarce resources available for operations and maintenance.

Floods and landslides have cost an estimated US$935 million: $400 million in direct costs (physical damage) and $535 million in indirect costs ($435 million in lost production, $50 million in lost revenues from tourism, and $50 million for the cleanup operation immediately after the disaster).

Rescue and salvage equipment were inadequate at the time of the floods and were located far from the emergency sites. Severe gaps in emergency response and preparedness plans compounded the damage from the floods. The emergency response was not carefully planned so people and materials converged on the area, creating great confusion. The chief problem was poor coordination and sharing of information. A great deal of effort was wasted and many urgent tasks were not addressed.

After the disaster, and with some difficulty, the state and municipal governments implemented short-term disaster relief activities, albeit at a snail’s pace: roads were reopened, emergency services were restored, and the homeless were temporarily housed in schools and other public buildings. At the same time, the government began considering the longer, more arduous, and costly tasks of rehabilitating the affected areas and reestablishing economic activity and physical infrastructure. The disaster stimulated local government (encouraged and assisted by the World Bank) to undertake preventive measures to mitigate the effects of minor periodic floods and to improve the region’s capacity to cope with the major floods that occur every 20 years or so. On March 30, 1988, the state governor created an Executive Group for Reconstruction and Emergency Works to oversee and coordinate short-term disaster relief and medium- and long-term reconstruction and prevention activities. The municipality of Rio also created a special unit to coordinate activities.

The World Bank’s response

The Bank’s strategy in response to the disaster was to strengthen the already considerable flow of technical assistance to improve long-run policy development in urban planning and to initiate a US$393.6 million flood reconstruction project, to which the Bank contributed $175 million. The project was designed to:

· Provide a quick response to immediate needs.
· Restore assets and productivity to preflood levels.
· Increase the metropolitan region’s resilience when floods occur.

The project’s central goal was to strengthen the metropolitan region’s institutional and financial ability to manage urban development and environmental planning. It emphasized the need for fundamental reform, giving high priority to:

· Improving institutional capability for responding to emergencies and natural hazards.

· Rebuilding and rehabilitating basic infrastructure.

· Implementing physical and institutional preventive measures to reduce the damage from future floods.

· Helping the governments of the state and municipality of Rio de Janeiro develop flood prevention and mitigation programs.

· Modifying the management policies of the municipality of Rio and in the Baixada Fluminense region to increase the availability of public funds and the ability to mobilize financial resources for routine maintenance and environmental protection.

What has been done

From the early stages of implementation the project confronted a common difficulty: institutional weakness, exacerbated by the complexity of an emergency situation requiring multisectoral and interagency responses. Responsibilities for execution were distributed among so many agencies that coordination became almost impossible. Efforts by Bank staff to clarify and understand the roles of each institution and level of government were a major problem. Political rivalry between the state and municipal governments, and differences with the federal government, greatly increased project risk. Numerous managerial changes in the Caixa Economica Federal (CEF), Brazil’s financial intermediary and cofinancier of the project in the two years after the disaster, contributed to an 18-month delay in the project.

But now most structural works - mainly infrastructure in the city of Rio - have been substantially completed. Roads and bridges have been repaired, and the massive dredging of rivers and drainage canals choked with debris and silt deposits has begun. Stabilization of steep hillsides and slopes is almost complete. Repairs of sewerage systems will soon permit improved collection of sewage that currently drains into open waterways. Institutional problems have delayed the preparation and implementation of a metropolitan regional program for improving the collection and disposal of solid waste, but progress is under way.

The project’s serviced-sites component provides emergency recovery assistance to families living in high-risk areas. Work has begun on providing families with unrestricted title to the land on 11,000 minimally serviced lots. Housing sites will be provided for about 5,000 families who either lost their homes in the floods and landslides or need to be resettled. Most relocation from housing along the rivers is done under state auspices. Within the city of Rio de Janeiro, about 5,700 refugee families who lost their dwellings have already been moved from high-risk areas in the city.

The state of Rio de Janeiro is being given technical assistance to formulate strategy for disaster mitigation that focuses on developing hazard reduction techniques and reversing environmental degradation. The strategy is to prepare an integrated system that improves the communication technology, land transportation, and equipment needed for a quick and efficient emergency response. The civil defense plan being prepared for the municipality of Rio covers such natural hazards as floods, landslides, and fires in high-rise buildings and such technological hazards as toxic waste spills.

The municipality of Rio de Janeiro is being given technical assistance to provide educational programs in:

· The proper handling and disposal of solid waste.
· Safe self-help techniques for low-cost housing construction.
· Protecting forests.
· Inspection and control of illegal, informal mineral exploration.
· Strengthening the fiscal administration.

Managing natural disasters

In the short and medium term, the project focuses on key problem areas in disaster preparedness, including housing and environmental sanitation services, landslide control measures, environmental planning and management of spatial development, and urban waste collection and disposal. In the long run, the project seeks to develop the foundations for reform in urban environmental policies through:

· Formulation of an in-depth preparedness plan for the greater metropolitan region.
· Preparation of a medium- and long-term reforestation plan for Rio’s metropolitan region.
· A proposal to protect reforested areas.
· An analysis of land-use practices and a proposal for streamlining land tenure issues.
· The preparation and implementation of a program in environmental education.

The Rio Flood Reconstruction and Prevention Project is a remarkable example of an effort to reduce hazard-related losses. Addressing environmental degradation in the city called for integrating environmental policies into the normal activities of public institutions. But the project’s most significant feature may be its focus on preventive measures, based on a comprehensive technical assistance program that emphasizes environmental rehabilitation and increasing the region’s resilience in future catastrophes.