Development & Aid, Environment, Europe, Headlines

MADEIRA: Disaster Blamed on Chaotic Urban Planning

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Feb 22 2010 (IPS) - Prominent Portuguese environmentalists blamed the Dantesque scene in the tourist island of Madeira Monday, in the wake of flash floods that claimed at least 42 lives over the weekend, on seriously flawed urban planning.

One of the worst storms in the history of the small hilly Portuguese archipelago, which lies around 500 km off the coast of Morocco in northwest Africa, caused raging torrents of brown mud to drag trees, rocks and cars down streets, destroying houses, bridges and roads in and around the capital, Funchal.

Environmentalists have long complained about chaotic urban planning and overdevelopment as the island boomed as a tourist destination over the last few decades. They point to luxury hotels and other real estate projects built along the coast and near waterways, preventing storm runoff from draining into the ground.

The death toll was expected to rise as rescuers began to reach previously inaccessible villages. According to unofficial estimates, between 40 and 200 people are missing, including both locals and foreign tourists. In addition, dozens of people were injured and treated at hospitals. There are fears that more bodies will be found in the flooded underground parking lots of shopping malls, for example.

After the worst flooding in the island in 100 years, many areas are still without power, water or communications, and government buildings and schools remain closed. The Portuguese government declared a three-day national mourning period.

The storm was one of the worst to hit any part of Portuguese territory in a century: on Saturday it rained 114 litres per square metre in just five hours in Funchal, which receives an average annual precipitation of 750 litres per square metre.

The heavy rainfall, combined with Madeira’s geography of steep slopes slanting towards the coast, led to the formation of rivers of mud that swept up everything in their path, carrying boulders and slabs of cement bouncing along like tennis balls.

Madeira has no weather radar, which would have helped meteorologists forecast the intensity of the rainfall, said Ricardo Trigo, a climatologist at the University of Lisbon’s Geophysics Centre.

But while environmentalists acknowledge the magnitude of the storm, they largely blame the reckless development of this small group of islands, whose population of 250,000 depends heavily on the year-round tourism industry.

The unusually heavy rainfall “obviously had to do with what happened, but it wasn’t the only cause. The situation has gradually been aggravated due to land-use zoning problems and errors committed on the island,” said Hélder Spínola, a member of the board of directors of Quercus, Portugal’s leading environmental organisation.

In a statement issued Sunday, Portugal’s Green Party (Partido Ecologista “Os Verdes” – PEV) criticised “land-use and urban planning errors that have been allowed to occur in favour of private interests, and that later have devastating effects” in severe climate situations like Saturday’s freak storm.

The tourism development boom led to the construction of roads and the paving over of much of the coastline areas, and the drainage channels that run through Funchal parallel to the main roads were unable to cope with the copious amounts of water and overflowed their banks.

Ricardo Ribeiro, president of the Portuguese association of civil protection experts (ASPROCIVIL), pointed to urban sprawl and uncontrolled construction in hilly areas at risk of flash floods and mudslides, the excessive paving over of land, which impedes drainage, and the poor inter-connection of waterways and flood channels.

The governor of Madeira, Alberto João Jardim, rejected these allegations, and highlighted a number of measures taken in the region to curb the risk of flooding.

Funchal Mayor Miguel de Albuquerque also reacted to the criticism, which he called “ridiculous.”

Perhaps there was “a mistaken urban planning decision here or there,” but they can’t be blamed for the disaster, he said.

But Quercus’s Spínola said overdevelopment had modified and obstructed the normal course of Madeira’s three main rivers – the São João, Santa Luzia and João Gomes – on their way to the sea, and that as a result they overflowed their banks, which led to the widespread destruction of buildings, roads and bridges.

“There was a natural component, but there is also a human one, and a prevention aspect, both of which failed,” the environmentalist said.

Funchal has mushroomed in the last 20 years, “especially with the growing urban sprawl in the lowest-lying areas, where the water runs down to,” he added.

Former PEV lawmaker Isabel de Castro told IPS that the problem must be analysed in the broader context of what has been going on in the country in the last two decades.

Although “Portugal has some of the most advanced (environmental) legislation in the world, and protection of the environment is enshrined in the constitution as a basic right, there is a huge gap between the country’s laws and the reality,” said the environmentalist.

“Public policies defending and promoting ecological balance have been abandoned, and the state has become less and less accountable,” she added.

De Castro complained about “the dismantling or precariousness of oversight and monitoring mechanisms, a lack of political will and vision, and the prevailing impunity that favours attacks on the environment and environmental degradation.

“With the complicity, through omission, of successive administrations, our natural heritage is being destroyed in the name of quick, easy profits,” said the environmentalist.

This country is experiencing “impoverishment of the soil: over half of the territory is threatened with desertification, one-third is suffering severe erosion, and the demographic imbalance is growing, with one-fourth of Portugal’s 10.6 million people forced to flee to the cities from the countryside,” said de Castro.

Around 20 percent of the population has moved from the interior of the country to coastal areas, where 90 percent of economic activity is concentrated.

De Castro said this leads to “chaotic land use and urban sprawl, with the resultant concreting over, under the pretext of ‘the public interest’, even in areas at risk of flooding” – like what happened in Madeira, with the subsequent tragic results.

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