Golden Rio hides waterfalls of filth in a land of broken promises

As the glitz and glamour starts to fade from the Rio Olympics, those at the bottom of the social scale expect little to change despite the city’s investment promises before the biggest sports event on the planet rocked up.

Poorer families living in Rio’s favelas, which make up a fifth of the city’s population, are unlikely to see much benefit from the Games.

A government housing initiative called Morar Carioca was launched shortly after Rio won the Olympic bid and promised to improve all of Rio’s favelas in a decade.

But the programme was gradually abandoned and only two out of 40 projects are currently being carried out.

The government also failed to follow through on another promise it made, to provide public services to improve life in favelas. In 2012 the Rio mayor Eduardo Paes said his goal was to completely urbanise the favelas by 2020. But his lofty plan petered out without much to show for it. Meanwhile, initial efforts to reform favelas eliminated informal jobs, such as driving moto-taxis, that many locals depended on.

“What the Olympics has done is reinforce the division between the haves and have-nots,” says Robert Muggah, a security expert at at Igarapé Institute, a Rio-based think tank. “It’s an opportunity that has been missed, to engage with some of these structural issues.”

The economy remains mired in a worse slump than during the darkest days of the Great Depression, with little prospect of a quick recovery.

After plunging 5.4 per cent in the first three months of 2016 from a year earlier, Brazilian GDP likely shrank by about 3.5 per cent in the second quarter. That marks eight consecutive quarters of decline, a record unmatched in a country with a long history of economic failure, political crises and frequent booms and busts linked to commodities.

Rio has spent money on transforming itself, as it had vowed to do as part of its Olympic bid, but most of the investment went to places other than the favelas. A map analysis of the Olympic projects published by the community journalism site Rio On Watch shows most of the new development is concentrated in the richer parts of town.

Garbage, waste water and raw sewage, among the many waterfalls and channels that run openly next to the crowded dwellings in Rocinha Favela, for instance, still threaten the health of the community there and many others like it. The money spent on the Olympics in Rio are a bitter fact for poor residents, faced with paralysed plans for improving the favela’s sanitation and services due to the government’s financial emergency.

Rio has one of the worst housing problems in Brazil, second only to Sao Paulo’s.

One report suggests that the city would need to build more than 220,000 new homes to accommodate its population adequately.

While London used the impetus of the 2012 Games to provide affordable housing in a regenerated part of town, Rio’s approach has been to build the athletes’ village in the upscale Barra da Tijuca neighbourhood.

After the Games, the 3,604 flats in the village will be put on the market but because of their cost, they are expected to be snapped up mainly by families of the upper middle class.

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