One of the things I noted this time last year when I visited Rio de Janeiro was the perilous situation of the poorest areas of informal housing, the favelas or morros when it comes to flooding and landslides. Just in the last 24 hours, huge amounts of rain has caused land and debris slides that have killed around 100 in the state according to the BBC, and in particular 13 people have been killed in Morro dos Prazeres, a favela I visited with my colleague Paola, according to The Guardian*. The centre of the city is deep in water. My thoughts are with all the people I met last year in Rio, and all the communities affected by this disaster.
The Associated Press is reporting that many nations, in particular the USA, have changed their surveillance methods for keeping track of Swine Flue (H1N1), and are no longer counting confirmed cases. The justification for this is that the confirmed cases count was already massively underestimating the numbers affected, and in any case, it is no longer useful once the disease hits a certain proportion of the population. This may be true on a whole population level, but the move away from counting cases means that changes in particular populations and areas below subnational level are less observable – and this is a problem if the disease is affecting some groups and places more than others. It might for example be crucial to deciding who and where receives vaccinations, for example. There is also the added complication of budget cuts in local government surveillance resulting from the recession. As with many kinds of caring surveillance, one key question is not whether the surveillance is perfectly accurate, but whether the surveillance is ‘good enough’ for the purpose for which it is intended, and in the case of diseases, this is sometime a tricky thing to determine.
So are there better ways of doing it? Some private companies certainly think so. As I have reported before, Google and others reckon that online disease tracking systems will be vital in the future, so much so that Google in particular has gone rather over the top in its claims about what would happen if access to the data it used for these systems were restricted…
It’s been raining all night and sometimes the rain has been very heavy, pounding on the corrugated plastic roof of my small room. It is making me think more urgently of the favelas and their situation. Following what Paulo Saad was telling me yesterday, I have been reading a very interesting and worrying article by Schuster et al. in a book on landslides. The combination of the climate (heavy rains from January to March) and underlying geology (steep weathered granite slopes and residual soil on top) makes Rio particularly susceptible to landslides. Combined with the prevalence of illegal and unsafe building spreading further to higher and steeper slopes, you have a real recipe for disaster: simple landslides can become debris flows as more material accumulates into the slide and adds to its weight and destructive capacity.
In 1966 and 1967, there were over 1000 deaths from landslides after particularly heavy rain in the Rio area. Santa Teresa was also badly hit by last series of catastrophic landslides to affect Rio in 1988, when the Santa Genoveva Hospital for elderly people was destroyed, killing 34. Altogether 120 people were killed and, perhaps even more worrying for future development, 22,000 were made homeless. According to sources quoted by Schuster et al., this was after less than an hour of particularly heavy rain…
After the late 1960s events that action was taken to reforest the undeveloped slopes around Santa Teresa and reinforce some parts of the hill with concrete channels to direct the flow of water. Building regulations were also strengthened. However, it is in this area that much of the recent illegal building is taking place – and as I mentioned, not just by the desperate and ignorant poor, but also by simply greedy and uncaring middle classes.
Robert L. Schuster, Daniel A. Salcedo and Luis Valenzuela. Overview of catastrophic landslides in South America in the twentieth century, pp.1-34 in Catastropic Landslides: Effects, Occurrences, Mechanisms. ed. Stephen G. Evans and Jerome V. DeGraf, Geological Society of America, 2002.