RIO DE JANEIRO // A single colour determines the fate of thousands of residents in Rio de Janeiro's shantytowns, or favelas, after floods killed about 230 people this month. With a stroke of paint on the side of a shack or house, city officials assessing the damage from record rainfall are deciding who can stay and who must abandon their home. Blue paint means the house is still structurally sound; orange means there is cause for concern; black orders the residents to leave the house.
Although the floods had some effect on all of the city's six million residents, the worst afflicted are among the one million or so people who dwell in the hillside favelas. They face the biggest hurdles to returning to what passed for normality in the poverty-stricken, drug gang-controlled slums. The Brazilian government has rushed to try to take control after the floods, aware it is under increasing scrutiny as it prepares to host the football World Cup across the country in 2014 and the Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Officials issued reassuring statements, saying neither sporting event was likely to face such a disaster because neither would be held during Brazil's rainy season.
But the floods have highlighted the country's daunting challenges to upgrade its infrastructure, reduce widespread crime and overhaul a police force widely acknowledged as one of the most corrupt in the world. "The World Cup and Olympics could be great for us if the government finally does something for the people," said Rogerio Rodrigues, who helps to run the Two Brothers Foundation, an educational non-governmental organisation in Rocinha, the biggest favela in Rio de Janeiro.
Flooding caused mudslides and exposed tree roots and fresh red earth in Rocinha's steep, hillside streets and alleys. At other, even poorer favelas, long neglected by authorities, shacks and houses were swept away. Dozens of homes built on top of a rubbish dump crumbled down a hillside in Niteroi, a town just across the bay from Rio de Janeiro. Wastewater has flowed down from the favelas to southern Rio, where the city's elite live and play on the world-famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. Brazil's economic inequality rate ranks among the highest in the world, with an estimated one per cent of the population owning 50 per cent of the wealth.
Eduardo Paes, Rio's mayor, ordered nearly 50,000 people to evacuate the favelas. The city plans to spend more than one billion reals (Dh2bn) on relocation, reconstruction and reforestation. "In favelas built on flat ground, the water was 1.5 metres high. Now the water's gone, there's 30cm of mud, with animals and garbage buried in it," said Nanko van Buuren, who heads the Brazilian Institute for Innovations in Public Health. "Diseases such as cholera could spread."
A focus on reforestation to prevent mudslides has led favela residents to hope the authorities will abandon any lingering plan to build three-metre-high walls around some of their neighbourhoods. The idea of walls, long resisted by human rights and favela activists, was ostensibly to protect forest lands, but some saw it as a way to further divide rich and poor. "The people want reforestation, not big walls around them," Mr Rodrigues said.
Even before the floods, life was tough in the favelas, where rival drug gangs regularly fight gun battles with each other, with militias consisting of retired or off-duty police officers and with the regular police forces. Just a few weeks after the Olympic committee's announcement in October that Rio would host the 2016 games, suspected drug traffickers shot down a police helicopter, killing three officers.
The city hopes to emulate the success of Rudolph Giuliani and has hired the former New York mayor as an adviser following his success in reducing crime in his city in the 1990s. Rio also hopes to have a permanent police presence in 40 favelas by the end of this year - and all of them by 2016 - under a "pacification" programme. It is sending police officers fresh out of the training academy, rather than seasoned officers more likely to be corrupt, to impose law and order, favela by favela.
The city believes a complete eradication of drug trade would be impossible, but it does hope to wrest control of the neighbourhoods from drug lords. Along with the police operations, the city plans to provide greater access to social services, such as health and education, and investment in infrastructure, such as sewers and electricity. Mr Rodrigues had high hopes for the pacification programme after witnessing years of neglect in the favelas.
"After one very bad gun battle that killed seven people in 2002, I remember rich socialites coming to us but all they did was hand out flowers and candy to the kids," he said. "If that's all they want to do, it's best if they just leave us alone and we will try to look after each other." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org