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Environment

Locals demand action as extreme weather ravages Argentina's cities

Extreme weather is ravaging Argentina's urban centers. Locals want to know how the government is preparing to protect them against flash floods, extreme heat and drought.

At about 4:30 in the morning on April 2, 2013, Federico Brusau woke to the sound of a neighbor ringing his doorbell again and again. The water level in the street was rising quickly, and people were preparing for the worst.

Brusau rushed to shut the floodgates on his home and save his electronics. Then he hurried to his rooftop terrace to unclog its already-overflowing drains. By the time he got back downstairs, it was too late to do anything more.

“Everything was already covered with water,” he remembers. “It had come in over the floodgates and then through the heating vents. In less than five minutes, everything was flooded.”

The water level in the street had rapidly risen to 1.3 meters (51 inches) and spilled over Brusau's meter-high floodgates. Brusau had no choice but to retreat to his second-floor bedroom and waited for the rain to stop.

Extreme weather

Brusau, a 27-year-old who lives in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Saavedra - one of the lowest-lying points in the city of Buenos Aires - was just one of the many people affected by last April's floods in Buenos Aires and La Plata.

The floods caused at least 50 deaths and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. Both cities, like many in Latin America, are built on flood plains. As global warming increases and extreme weather events become more common, devastating floods are likely to carry away more lives and property unless governments develop adequate infrastructure and emergency responses.

Argentinien Überschwemmung

Extreme weather events are becoming commonplace in places like Buenos Aires

That evening, in the neighboring city of La Plata, 300 millimeters of rain fell.

Soledad Escobar, a La Plata resident, remembers stepping out of her home the morning after the torrential downpour.

“It was as if we'd been through a war,” she recalls. “The first thing I did was go to see a friend of mine who lived five blocks away who had water up to her neck. In that same block there was a woman who died, just meters from where my friend lives. She drowned in her house.”

What's to be done

As global warming increases, experts say not only Argentine cities, but cities across Latin America can expect both more droughts - like the one Argentina is experiencing now - and more storms, like the heavy rain that caused last year's deaths and devastation.

“Climate change has been underestimated,” says Antonio Elio Brailovsky, a local environment expert. “We're going to have more and more extreme events all the time.”

If local governments built infrastructure capable of handling normal storms, the effects of record-breaking rainfall wouldn't be so tragic, says Claudio Velazco, a hydraulic engineer and an expert on La Plata's drainage system. But, in dry years like this one, it's hard to make long-term investments to prepare for future storms.

The infrastructure that's needed is extensive. Environment expert Brailovsky says cities need to construct new drains in lower areas and, in higher areas, dams to hold back the water until the rain subsides.

Velazco, the engineer, says the money the local, provincial, and national governments spent on subsidies for those who lost their houses or possessions in last April's storms would have covered the cost of necessary public works projects. The government offers such subsidies because very few people have home insurance in Argentina.

Argentinien Überschwemmung

Many homes are without insurance in Argentina

Fortunately, some palliative measures wouldn't require much of a budget, adds Brailovsky, the environment expert. He says zoning laws should be changed so that there aren't underground parking garages or power boxes in areas susceptible to flooding.

Making up for lost time

Plans to get Buenos Aires ready for the next storm are in the works. But the problem is, since 1940, city governments have neglected to build infrastructure to keep up with the growing population, says the city's Director of Infrastructure, Daniel Capdevila.

So, now, the city is doing its best to make up for lost time. In 2005, it hired a consultant to complete a “Hydraulic Master Plan.”

“The first thing we did was improve the Maldonado Canal, which is the watershed where one third of the population [about one million people] lives,” says Capdevila.

Next on the city's list is the Vega Canal, which drains the areas flooded in 2013. But, due to disagreements between the local and national governments, the city of Buenos Aires never got the loans it needed to finance the projects.

“The World Bank was pleased with the loan they gave us for the Maldonado, and wanted to give us money for the Vega,” says Capdevila. “But we need to work with the national government so that it backs the loan.”

Frustrated residents

Those affected by last year's floods say it's just a matter of political will.

In Buenos Aires, a group of residents from Federico Brusau's neighborhood, Saavedra, is demanding the city implement a plan to notify residents when a dangerous storm is coming and a way to send emergency vehicles to vulnerable sites when floods strike. And, if that doesn't happen soon, they plan to take their case to court.

Soledad Escobar, in La Plata, wants to see her taxes coming back to her in the form of infrastructure improvements and new public works projects - even in dry years, like this one.

“We want the government to take the problem seriously, to solve it, to listen to engineers…, to come to an agreement, to put together a task force, and to build the necessary infrastructure regardless of how much it costs,” she says.

After all, she asks, “What is the price of human life?”

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