Catastrophic flooding and state negligence in Paraguay leave the poorest vulnerable

Widespread flooding has driven tens of thousands of families from their homes in Paraguay. In Asunción, this emergency reveals extreme negligence from the state towards those who are poorest and most affected by the rising waters. Español.

William Costa
7 June 2019, 12.00am
Inundaciones en el Barrio Tacumbú, Asunción. Tacumbú forma parte de los Bañados. Foto: Matías Newken. Todos los derechos reservados.

“I’m generally a very calm person, but it’s distressing being here; I feel extremely on edge. We have so many needs that aren’t being met. Thank God, I’ve ended up with a group of good people”. Sara Gaona speaks over the noise of the rain beating down on the corrugated metal roof of her make-shift home. She is noticeably tired but punctuates her sentences with laughter whilst comforting her young daughter, who is sat on her lap.

Since the beginning of April, Gaona has lived with her husband and their three small children in the Plaza Japón, a public square in a middle-class neighbourhood in Asunción, Paraguay’s capital. They are not alone: “There are 55 families, like us, inside the square and another 50 on the pavement outside: 105 in total”. The families have erected temporary housing using available materials—mostly plywood, tarpaulin and corrugated metal—transforming the square into a maze of narrow, muddy alleyways.

The appearance of this improvised settlement is a result of the unrelenting rise of the River Paraguay. Heavy rains, beginning in March, have incrementally swollen the river—on the banks of which Asunción sits—and caused its waters to flood the city’s low-lying, poor neighbourhoods, known collectively as the Bañados. Visitación Aquino, one of Gaona’s neighbours in the Plaza Japón, describes the event: “The river reached the back of my house and I was worried. Then, in the evening, it came inside. It was so quick; I didn’t expect it to be like that. When we left the next day, we were practically in the water”.

It is estimated that over 14,000 families have been affected in Asunción by the flooding. As people have moved to higher ground, camps—like the one in the Plaza Japón—have sprung up across the city.

A country gasping for air

It is not just the capital that has been affected by the floods. All along the banks of the River Paraguay—the river traces a route of more than 1000 kilometres through the country that it gives its name to—rural communities, towns and cities have felt the impact of the rising water. The Department for National Emergencies (SEN) estimates that, in total, more than 60,000 families have been displaced, prompting a state of emergency to be declared in seven administrative departments, including in Asunción.

The current emergency points to a link between dramatic transformation and human factors, such as climate change and intense deforestation in northern Paraguay.

The scarcely populated Chaco region of western Paraguay, an area often experiencing extreme drought, has greatly suffered: in indigenous communities cut off by floodwaters, at least six people have died due to being unable to reach medical facilities. Elsewhere, it is estimated that 90% of the population of the southern city of Pilar has been affected.

The Paraguayan Department of Meteorology has predicted that the river will continue to rise over coming weeks, fuelling fears that even more people could be forced to leave their homes. The number of displaced families in Asunción alone could rise to 20,000.

On the river’s edge

For the inhabitants of the Bañados of Asunción—some of the most impoverished neighbourhoods in the country—flooding is by no means a new experience. The very name “Bañados” refers to the fact that the communities—home to roughly 120,000 people (a fifth of the population of the city)—are built on periodically flooded wetlands along the river bank.

Gaona, who was born in one of these neighbourhoods, describes this uncomfortably close relationship with the fluctuations of the waterway: “When I was a little girl, the move was fun. It was fun to play in the water and to make rafts. But now, as a mother, it’s very distressing. You have to leave everything behind and pay for the move”.

Though seasonal variations in the level of the River Paraguay are continuously observed, large-scale flooding is reported to have occurred historically on average only once every nine to fifteen years. Yet, over recent years, there has been a marked change in the behaviour of the river; including the current emergency, there have been three major floods since 2014. This dramatic transformation has been linked to human factors, such as climate change and the intense deforestation seen in northern Paraguay.

Asunción’s poor left adrift

The increased frequency of flooding has been devastating for the Bañados. Giovanna Minardi of the Family Attention Centre (CAFA) of Mil Solidarios, an NGO that works with inhabitants of the low-lying neighbourhoods, states, “Now, the river rises the whole time, it’s a problem every year. There are families that haven’t been able to return to their homes since 2014 that are living on the streets and in public squares”.

Minardi is highly critical of the government’s efforts to help those once again affected by the waters this year: “The state didn’t even take charge of the most basic thing of all, which is the organisation of shelters. People looked for places to stay by themselves”. She adds that there are now no public spaces left for the ever-growing wave of flood victims to build shelters in: “The last site that was occupied was a private sports club, and there’s a threat that they could be evicted. The people there are scared”.

Floods in the Tacumbú Neighborhood, Asunción. Tacambú is part of the Bañados. Photo: William Costa. All rights reserved.

Furthermore, the SEN—the government institution charged with attending the needs of those affected by disasters—is heavily criticised within the camps for failing to provide emergency support materials. Visitación Aquino, from the Plaza Japón, claims, “They started to bring us things, but just four or five sheets of corrugated metal, and then the same happened with the plywood. They’ll give you the wood today, and then three days later some of the other bits. They don’t bring it all at the same time so that you can just build your shelter”.

Similar concerns are expressed regarding food. Sara Gaona claims that emergency provisions from the SEN arrived a full month after she had been made homeless by the flood. Consequently, many families, unable to continue working, have had to rely on scarce donations from the public. Gaona, elected as coordinator of the Plaza Japón camp, has the job of handing out these supplies. She points to a lone pumpkin on the table beside her and speaks of the coming task of dividing it into 55 pieces for the families living inside the square.

Giovanna Minardi claims that health problems are also rife: “We’re seeing certain issues in all the camps: conjunctivitis, skin problems, diarrhoea. Perhaps it’s because of the bathrooms, perhaps because of the water. It’s because of the conditions people are in”. Medical provisions are insufficient and, with the 13 million guarani (US$2,064) loss that the flooding is estimated to represent for each family, the possibility of seeking alternative sources of medical care is out of reach.

It is claimed that when supplies from the SEN do reach the camps, they are handed out according to an agenda: supporters and operators of the ruling party are given priority.

Neighbourhoods beyond the state

The state’s negligent response, which has contributed to the desperate conditions in the temporary camps, is a familiar experience for the Bañados’ residents. The absence of the authorities has been a characteristic of these extremely poor communities since they were created by waves of rural migrants arriving in Asunción in the 1960s.

Father Francisco Oliva, Jesuit priest who has spent the last 20 years working in the Bañados, explains, “The Bañados were deserted areas. Then, rural small-scale farmers, who no longer had work in the countryside, or whose lands had been taken from them, came to Asunción. Their money quickly ran out and they had to go to the only place that didn’t have an owner: the Bañados”.

These newly colonised wetlands were long considered outside the official jurisdiction of Asunción’s authorities—the Municipality of Asunción only recognised the Bañados as part of the city in 2011—and, as such, they did not receive support from public institutions. Consequently, over a period of half a century, the inhabitants were forced to independently develop their own infrastructure: schools, health posts, cobbled streets and public services.

That’s the primary role of the state: to improve people’s living conditions. Every human being has the right to live in a healthy environment

Regarding this extreme void of state presence, Father Oliva says, “I don’t know if it’s due to inability, I don’t know if they just don’t see the problem, or if they don’t want to, or if that they can’t, or if they’re stupid, or if they’re busy with other more important business”.

The lax response to the flooding over the last few months appears to form part of this historic pattern of abandonment from authorities.

Poor people, valuable land

In addition to concerns over efforts to meet the immediate needs of the flood victims, there has also been a strong questioning of the state’s proposals for a long-term solution to flooding in the Bañados. Roger Monte Domecq, civil engineer and professor of hydrology at the National University of Asunción, states, “Following the three floods of the last few years, we still haven’t reacted as a society, as a state. We must have a response for the people that are living in this situation in vulnerable areas”.

Over the past decade, the Paraguayan government’s attention has indeed turned to the area of the Bañados, but for other reasons. In 2011, public institutions began work on a Master Plan for the development of Asunción’s riverside. An important element of this project is the construction of a major road running along the river to ease the city’s chronic traffic problems.

However, Monte Domecq states that the design of the raised road does not contemplate the addition of flood defences for the inhabitants of the Bañados, through whose neighbourhoods it will run. He mentions that these defences could have been added for a relatively low cost.

As a result, Bañado residents living alongside recently completed sections of this new dual carriageway are amongst this year’s flood victims. Monte Domecq asks, “How can it be possible that people living by the new road have been affected? We need to rethink our engineering projects: they need to have a strong social component and work for the people. That’s the primary role of the state: to improve people’s living conditions. Every human being has the right to live in a healthy environment”.

The government’s Master Plan does include a proposal for an eventual solution to the flooding. It outlines a scheme to knock down the existing neighbourhoods and “fill-in” the Bañados with material from the river bed to raise them above the danger of the waters. This measure, in addition to costing an estimated 30 times than the addition flood defences to the already existing road project, is viewed by many in the Bañados with suspicion.

It is perceived as a strategy to evict the poor families living in the neighbourhoods in order to make room for a new wave of high-end commercial and corporate constructions. Indeed, when the issue of flooding is solved, the Bañados will be an attractive location for development: they are near to the city centre and offer unrivalled views of the river.

To avoid a repeat of this same situation next year the Bañados require a satisfactory permanent solution that takes into account their right to live, work and form part of society in Paraguay’s capital.

Sara Gaona, camp coordinator at Japan Square. Photo: William Costa. All rights reserved.

Cleto Pérez of 1811—an organisation formed by Bañado residents to promote youth projects—considers that “Between the options of adding flood defences to the road and of filling in the land so that we can live above the river, filling in the land is a much better option. But it’s so expensive to do that that they’re never going to give the land back to you so that you can rebuild your house”.

Instead, he says, residents will either not be allowed to the return to the areas where their houses once stood, will be priced out by wealthier buyers or will be moved to social housing in other areas.

Pérez claims that the attractive-sounding option of social housing is deceptive. Two previous attempts to relocate Bañado residents to state-built housing have proved largely unsuccessful: an insufficient number of homes were built for displaced families and many practical considerations were not taken into account. “People went to the new houses and ended up so far from their work, from the hospital, from their schools that it was more expensive for them to pay the three bus fares than to just come back to live in the city. It’s an economic blow for those people.”

The ejection of people from the Bañados without the provision of a suitable living solution—housing that respects their right to live in the city, does not disrupt social networks and allows them to maintain their culture (which continues to preserve many aspects of rural life)—is not an option to be entertained according to Pérez. The vast majority of organisations within the Bañados continue to push for flood defences to be added to the road project in order to avoid running the risk of being forced from their neighbourhoods.

The water will return

Faced with a future of continued flooding, the people of Asunción’s Bañados have a pressing need for both short and long-term solutions. At present, these are not being provided by the Paraguayan government. The thousands of families currently living in unbearable conditions in the camps around the city need proper assistance to guarantee their human rights.

Additionally, to avoid a repeat of this same situation next year (or whenever the next major flood may be—it will come) the Bañados require a satisfactory permanent solution that takes into account their right to live, work and form part of society in Paraguay’s capital.

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