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Life Is Like Purgatory in the Squalid Shantytowns of Paraguay

In December, 2015, massive flooding on the Rio Paraguay forced over 100,000 Paraguayans to flee their homes. Nearly six months later, 60,000 citizens are still displaced and the situation isn't improving.

Image credit: Associate Press

"If you blinked, the water rose so fast that it didn't give us any time to get out," Blanca López, 50, told me as we walked through Plaza de la Independencia, a public plaza turned shanty-town community in Asunción, the capital city of Paraguay. "A year ago I had faith, but now my faith in Paraguay has run out."

In December, 2015, massive flooding on the Rio Paraguay forced over 100,000 Paraguayans to flee their homes, with the vast majority of them—roughly 90,000—in Asunción. At least four people lost their lives, and the federal government declared a state of emergency, authoring $3.5 million to provide immediate relief.


The flooding was caused by El Niño, a climatic phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean, which also wreaked havoc in other parts of the world where thousands more were affected by floods and droughts.

In Asunción, over 60,000 people still live in an assortment of plazas, roadways, and parks that extend along the coast above the floodplain in the capital. As the water rose in December, people filled these areas with thousands of makeshift single-family homes built from wood posts, plywood, and corrugated roofing materials.

"Flooding always happened, but now it's happening more and it's so much worse," López told me in March as we sat outside her current home in Plaza de la Independencia, a once-open public square that families packed tightly with their provisional houses. López said flooding used to happen about once every ten years—referencing the natural disasters that rocked the country in 1983 and 1992—but that she has had to flee twice in just the last two years. In June 2014, López, along with around 75,000 others in Asunción, left her flooded house and stayed in a public plaza for seven months before she could return home, only to retreat again in December 2015.

Some scientific research shows that the effects of El Niño patterns may become even more extreme in the future. And according to a weather prediction released earlier this year by the Paraguayan government's Department of Meteorology and Hydrology, a new round of flooding expected in June may be the worst on record.


Plaza de la Independencia, a public plaza turned shanty-town community in Asunción, the capital city of Paraguay. Photo by the author

López said she does not want to go back home, but cannot afford to move. Her house, like many in her low-lying neighborhood, does not have a deed, so she cannot sell it and move elsewhere. "There's no place for us to go, there's no way for us to have a house," López told me. "There's no way for us to live in dignity."

For the thousands of residents still displaced, a house may be as small as ten feet by eight feet for a family the size of Lopez's, who lives with her husband and 20-year-old son. A nearby neighbor, María Sosa, 31, lives in a slightly larger structure of 20 feet by 16 feet, just large enough to cram two twin beds, a dresser, and an electric stove to cook for herself, her husband, and her three young children. She said she wants to get back home as soon as the water recedes.

"The kids aren't happy here, they want to sleep in their own beds," Sosa told me. "It's terrible, but what are we going to do?"

Other basic amenities are scarce. As I sat outside Lopez's current home, she pointed to a small, three feet by five feet shack under the shade of a mango tree in the center of the plaza. A blue curtain served in place of a door. "Do you smell that?" López asked me.

Inside the room was a single toilet, the shared bathroom neighbors had constructed using a 100 liter barrel as a septic tank back in December. The 30 families that used the bathroom filled it up to capacity within a week. As we sat outside talking, a distinct smell of human waste wafted through the air.


Miguel Kurita, the Chief of Staff for the country's Secretary of National Emergencies (SEN), told me that the government provided some basic services to the displaced after the flooding initially hit. Along with the municipal government in Asunción, they distributed building materials for the makeshift homes, though residents had to construct the homes themselves. Today, SEN continues to allot some basic foodstuffs—like rice, noodles, and loose leaf yerba mate—to the families each month, though they haven't figured out how to adequately address issues such as sanitation.

"We give emergency aid, like the materials, which are readied in a very short period. And if materials are destroyed, then we replace them," Kurita told me over the phone from his office in the capital. "In terms of hygienic services, really it's so complicated, what we are doing is trying to provide bathrooms for every family."

A member of the international aid community agreed. "The main challenges related to the provision of aid in these actions are related to sanitary conditions," said a spokesman for the European Commission (EC), who requested his name not be included. The EC has funded €300,000 [$338,000] to support two flood-affected municipalities—Nanawa and José Falcón—just across the Rio Paraguay from Asunción. He told me that regular rain and high temperatures make it difficult to distribute emergency services, and that mosquito-born viruses such as dengue, chikungunya, and zika are a constant threat. SEN worked to tackle the sanitation issue with the installation of over 500 port-a-potties throughout the areas inhabited by the displaced.


But long-term solutions are hard to find. Kurita said there is a plan to build permanent housing for about 5,000 residents of Asunción in a location outside of the floodplain, though that is far from sufficient aid for the roughly 90,000 who were displaced in December, and there is no schedule for when that project will begin, let alone finish.

A flooded soccer field in La Chacarita neighborhood. Photo by the author

Beyond logistical problems, the government officials I spoke with said many people do not want to move away from their homes, many of which are in the city center and close to many jobs and schools. And there is simply no space in the already-cramped urban metropolis for new government housing outside the floodplain.

"Certainly [the situation] is very bad, but the thing is conditioned by space," Kurita told me. "We have a problem with physical space here in Asunción."

In 2015 the government opened a pilot housing program of 222 single-family houses in Itagua, a smaller city just outside Asunción. A year later, the government found that 20 percent of people had left these houses to move back to their old neighborhoods for work or school.

"In Itagua, many people moved there and many moved back," Kurita told me. "Many people are already established in their daily lives… they will return to their homes."

Down in the flood-affected areas, there is already a growing number of people who are trying to ensure they never have to leave their homes at all.


Enrique Cañete (right) examines his new canoe with his neighbor. Photo by the author

"We don't want to move," Enrique Cañete, 59, told me as he inspected the paint job on his canoe. "So we built a house that the water can't touch."

Rather than look for a way out, Cañete is one of a small number of people in this area who are looking up. Last year he built a second floor onto his house and moved all his belongings upstairs. When the flooding came in December 2015, Cañete, his wife and all their possessions stayed dry. With his canoe, he will be dry and mobile when the next round of rain inevitably hits.

"We're used to it here and our work is close to here," Cañete told me emphatically. "We can't leave, we were born here."

But most people cannot afford to build a new floor on their house, which can cost thousands of dollars. López told me she would happily move anywhere, even if it were outside the city, as long is it is safe from the cycle of floods.

"The saddest thing of all is that after all your effort, when you go back home you have to start all over again," López lamented. "I just want to leave already and go to a place where there aren't floods."

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