“It’s amazing how something that hardly ever brings water suddenly becomes this monster.” The quote is from João Antunes, president of the Algés Parishes Union, Linda-a-Velha e Cruz Quebrada/Dafundo (independent, centre-right), who spent the early hours of December 13 near the Algés stream on a self-imposed watch. “It's a ticking time bomb, but we have to learn to live with it.” Dawn saw that lower area partially submerged. It’s not an unseen scenario, but one usually spaced out in time. “The last flood like this was 40 years ago”, explains João Antunes.
In Algés, an area prone to flooding, there are two reasons for concern – the stream, coming from Amadora and Monsanto and conducted in an underground conduit to the Tagus, and the water that comes from Lisbon, drained by the slope of Avenida Dom Vasco da Gama.
“The Algés stream had not yet overflowed, and the area was already full of water”, he summarises. In 2008, a project was born to duplicate the underground stream course, through the construction of a second tube that would dilute the torrent on heavy rain days.
Austerity policies saw this plan suspended. “It's time to take it out of the drawer. The floods will never end, that much is clear, there is too much water, but at least to minimise the situation.”
According to the current Algés Parishes Union president, the project was initially budgeted at 20 million euros, with the municipality guaranteeing half of the funding. “Now, it’s at 50 million and he [Oeiras’ mayor] continues to vouch for 50% of construction.” As Time Out was able to ascertain, the project was once again debated between the Oeiras City Hall, the Portuguese Environment Agency and the Commission for Regional Development and Coordination of Lisbon and Tagus Valley.
Alcântara saw the situation repeating itself. Once again, there were two aggravating factors in its physiographic vulnerability: the high tide and the underground aquifer with its source in Amadora – a channel also known as Caneiro de Alcântara – and flowing into the Tagus. “It rained at the height of a high tide. The water that came from the channel reached down there, found a wall of water and came back. And as it’s connected to the drains and gutters, that’s where it comes out. That’s why it flooded”, explains José Silva Ferreira, Lisbon Drainage Master Plan’s coordinator, whose main goal is to cease the flooding in this riverside area.
For António Carmona Rodrigues, former Lisbon mayor (PSD, centre-right), who graduated in civil engineering with a post-grad in Fluvial Hydraulic, the problem “is not the channel, nor the area”. “When the tide is high and there are large rain flows inside the channel, Alcântara’s lateral areas cannot drain into it. Only with lifting stations, with pumps to drive the water inside”, he says.
Without those pumps, the parish's urban evolution has witnessed some large-scale works. One of the most recent is the CUF Tejo Hospital, inaugurated in September 2020, which was soon in the news after the December floods. These types of structures hinder the rainwater flow and act as barriers instead, aggravating the situation for an area already prone to flooding. When reached by Time Out, the Alcântara Parish Council president failed to give any statements due to a lack of schedule.
In José Luís Zêzere’s opinion, the director of Lisbon’s University Centre for Geographical Studies, the hospital build “should never have happened”. “Can I build on a floodplain? Sure. I’ll create a landfill and build it on top. This means that the usual flood zone has changed its setting, it’s now smaller. If it’s smaller, it will either flow into places it didn’t before or rise the flood level on those it already did. Or both. Assuming CUF has no damage at this point, the fact that it was built where it was has increased the damage level for those around it”, he maintains.
The construction is shrouded in controversy. In February last year, an investigation by the Public Prosecution Service in Portugal into the hospital’s impact on the landscape had six defendants already, including Manuel Salgado, former city councillor for Urbanism and Urban Rehabilitation, architect Frederico Valssasina and CUF administrator, Guilherme Magalhães.
In Zêzere’s opinion, concern over urban planning should extend to the entire city riverside and account not just for floods, but for other imminent hazards as well. “There’s a bit of that idea of the nouveau-riche mentality that wants to build some houses with a balcony facing the sea [...]. We aren’t going to remove Praça do Comércio, nor Jerónimos. Now, I find it a bit harder to understand cases like Champalimaud, maat, the National Coach Museum or CUF Hospital. It’s like they’re pretending it has nothing to do with them. I’m sure those making these decisions aren’t crazy, but between the location’s symbolical trait - it’s one thing to have maat there, and something entirely different taking it to Odivelas - and the risk of an earthquake or a flood [...] the symbolism seems to matter more, meaning the risk awareness if not sufficiently ingrained.” Currently, efforts are focused on solving the problem upstream.