Where the River Meets the City

Posted by Alanna Elder – MA Candidate at CLACS / Global Journalism at NYU

A street in Tacumbu, an area of Asunción, June 2019. Photo by Alanna Elder.

I spent at least a third of an 8-hour layover in Houston exploring Paraguay on Google Maps, looking ahead to when I could finally see and move beyond the length of an airport terminal. Still laboring under the illusion that I would go for regular runs while I was in the capital, I made a mental note to check out the Avenida Costanera, a freeway and bike path that wraps around the Paraguay River. Tourist sites note the tereré stands, rollerblade rental, and boat access across the river to the neighboring department, Presidente Hayes. (That is, U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes, a b-side character once nicknamed “The Great Unknown” by his own party but appreciated in Paraguay for deciding a territorial dispute in the country’s favor). From the avenue, you can see the old city center and the new, two clumps of towers balancing the skyline. They might be swaying imperceptibly in the flow of money, history, and traffic, or facing each other down like the planning edition of Dorian Grey.

The Costanera seemed like a nice parallel for Riverside Park, the superhighway of green space and river access that fringes Manhattan’s West Side, and the closest park to my apartment. These two areas have something else in common: they caused some inconvenience for the people already living there. In the late 1930s, Robert Moses’ Park Commission added 132 acres to Riverside, fielding criticism for razing not only a so-called Hoovertown built by veterans, but also the Columbia Yacht Club. People still build shelters tucked along the Hudson, and in the 1990s another large group was kicked out for a state transportation project.

The Costanera´s story is more contemporary, and it´s unfolding on a larger scale. Plus it´s an engineering puzzle: the periodic floods that interrupt the lives of tens of thousands of people living along the Paraguay River. This past year has been especially rough. Asunción was flooding in late 2018, and by April of the New Year it was flooding again. The National Emergency Secretary reported in May that flooding had displaced thirteen thousand people in the capital and more than sixty thousand in the country. One resident told me she´d only been back home for three weeks before the river rose again; another, just a few days. Five thousand people left Nanawa, a town of just six thousand just across the river from Asunción. From there, it was easier to cross the border into Argentina than the water into the capital.

The government gave families materials for temporary housing and set up refuges on military land. But plenty of people were staying outside the refuges, in parks, on the grassy median strips between traffic lanes, or along the Costanera. Some with two story houses were living out of the top floor and rowing canoes to school or work, passing by the dogs, cats, and chickens that crowded the rooftops at eye-level. Even though the water has continued to recede since mid-June, many families won’t return home for months, if ever. And the river is guaranteed to keep flooding.

The affected neighborhoods of Asunción have hitched themselves to two different solutions: franja costera, or coastal strip, vs. defensa costera, coastal defense. And the esplanade you’ll read about on Trip Advisor is a central piece of that debate, because in some areas it has actually exacerbated flooding for those living just behind it. The Chacarita happens to be one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, a superlative most articles on the subject put up top. But the population has grown over the last few decades as people have moved in from rural areas. Houses spill over the hillside behind historic Asunción and reach down to the riverside – or, as of this decade, the Avenida Costanera. Those built on the slope are at risk of having their foundations swept out from under them in a landslide; those on the bottom are challenged by the fact that they are now sitting in a bowl. The raised avenue blocks the flow of water back into the river, making flooding more common.

As the city continues extending the Costanera down the length of river, there’s an argument for building it to protect the lower Chacarita and the other flood zones known as Bañado Sur and Bañado Norte, while mitigating the effect described above. The government’s favored approach, however, is to dredge the river and raise the elevation of these neighborhoods. CAMSAT, an organization representing an area of Bañado Sur called Tacumbu supports this plan. The group’s leaders have been working with the municipal government, which redubbed its goal “una Franja Costera Inclusive y Participativa.” The plan coincides with a promise to build as many as ten thousand homes in the bañados, 2,400 of which have been paid for by a donation from Taiwan.

CAMSAT’s members say the project is exactly what the neighborhood needs: a long-term, sustainable solution. But it turns out most of the other organizations in the bañados do not trust this plan at all. Suspicious that it is a ploy to kick the city’s poor out of the historic center and draw wealthy residents back to the river, these other groups are fighting the Franja Costera. On behalf the neighborhood umbrella organization Cobañados, a pair of engineers studied the cost of both projects and calculated that dredging and filling would actually cost thirty times more than it would to build flood defense. Last semester, a climate scientist visited one of my classes and brought up the debate over how to fortify New York against hurricanes and sea level rise. He drew a map on the whiteboard and pointed out that no matter how the coastal armor is designed, “there will be losers.” This is another weak parallel, since New York is contending with the Atlantic Ocean and Asunción with one of the rivers that frame the isla sin mar.

Being one of only two landlocked South American countries has its disadvantages but missing out on sea level rise is not one of them. What happens with the Franja Costera could redefine how the city interacts with the Paraguay River, which will keep rising on its own, uncertain schedule. Beachfront properties? Public housing? The old neighborhoods, on higher ground?What is already clear is that neighborhood activists are working hard to hold Asunción accountable to Bañado and Chacarita residents. At a panel discussion back in June, the leader of a community media page called Bañado Sur Te Vé explained the play on words behind its name. It doesn’t mean he works in television; it means Bañado Sur is watching.

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