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To what end do we bury our rivers?

Enchentes rios Rio de Janeiro rivers

We treat our rivers like garbage. In the large Brazilian cities they have been swiped under the rug. Paris has the Seine; London, the Thames; New York, the Hudson. But in the city that has the word “river” in its name, not even the Carioca, adjective for the sons of the land, sees the light of day. In Rio de Janeiro, most of them have gone to the ditch. They are dead and buried in underground galleries, where they receive untreated sewage. It’s not by chance that its streets become river rapids when it rains: the water that falls from the sky meets the water that runs in the underground. To what end do we bury our rivers? This exotic habit is one of the greatest causes of floods that punish the former capital of the country.

“It’s a completely atypical rain”, said evasively the mayor of the city after the last flood. You can’t blame God, Saint Peter, Iansã, Tupã or any other supernatural entity: the responsibility is totally ours. And it’s useless to wait for Divine Providence to solve the problem, we have to get down to business and look for solutions. Especially because climate change has shown what it can do; storms like this will be more and more common. We need to adapt to the calamities of the new times. Cities around the world have begun to exhume their rivers – an idea shown to be effective, and that brings other benefits. If there are successful experiences, why not embrace them?

A good example is Cheonggyecheon. The creek that cuts South Korea’s capital Seoul from east to west, was buried between the end of the 50’s and mid 70’s. Dug up in 2008, today it is a turist attraction and leisure area for the population. The work also helped to lower the temperature and traffic in the center of the city. Singapour, Madrid, Los Angeles, Portland, Toronto, Milan, Mexico City and Caracas have similar projects. In Brazil, there is a study to reopen channeled sections of the rivers Belém and Ivo, in Curitiba. “The summer rainstorms, almost every year, cause devastating floods in our Rio de Janeiro”, wrote in 1915 the chronicler João do Rio. The floods of March and April are part of the city’s calendar – which, to make it even worse, lies on top of embankments, that filled swamped areas with land or advanced into the sea.

All 267 rivers and creeks had channeled and buried sections, besides having their courses diverted, to run in a straight line. “The city had its urban planning focused on individual road transportation. The rivers are seen as obstacles, since cars don’t move in water. They were channeled, squeezed, made into a ditch. With this, we lost the vegetation area along the riverside that was fundamental for the absorption of the excess water. It’s not the water that invades the street, it’s the street that invaded the water”, says geographer Gustavo Veronesi, Technical Coordinator of the Project Observing the Rivers, of Foundation SOS Mata Atlântica.

Rio’s current mayor gave his contribution to the most recent catastrophy by cutting the funds for urban drainage and contention of hillsides since the beginning of his administration. But these would be only remedial measures; it is necessary to invest in radical change, and take climate change into account. “We, population, governors, all have to understand that this situation will be the new normal. It is not an atypical situation. It’s going to happen more and more often. We have to prepare society to adapt to these climate extremes”, alerts climatologist Carlos Nobre.

Gustavo Veronesi says that the city should be remodeled: “It is necessary to recuperate the margins of the rivers of Rio. Bike paths could be implemented on the recovered margins, which would also help in the transportation issue. And linear parks could be built, which would preserve the vegetation and serve and recreation areas. Unreal? Well, the recovery project of Cheonggyecheon cost US$300 million, approximately what was spent in the renovation of Maracanã Stadium – and since we mentioned it, right next to the stadium lies the river that gave its nickname and which overflows everytime it rains hard. Goal for the South Koreans.

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