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Georgia flood disaster exposes capital's slums
by Staff Writers
Tbilisi (AFP) May 15, 2012

The weekend floods that killed five people in the Georgian capital exposed a side of the city not shown in the slick tourist ads -- the ramshackle slums that are home to Tbilisi's poorest.

A mother and her two young children were among those who died after heavy rains sent powerful torrents of water surging through the rundown Ortachala neighbourhood, causing dilapidated houses to collapse and leaving streets awash with mud and littered with debris.

"I hope that this tragedy will bring more attention to people who have to live like this," said architecture campaigner Tamara Amashukeli.

Government-sponsored videos have been promoting an alluring vision of historic Tbilisi as "The City That Loves You" in an attempt to attract much-needed tourism revenue to the small former Soviet republic where GDP per capita is just $3,215 (2,497 euros).

Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili's administration has also initiated a series of landmark construction projects in the capital including a glittering glass-and-steel pedestrian bridge, an ultramodern police headquarters and an imposing new presidential palace.

But the urban deprivation that some Tbilisi residents endure daily is visible even a short walk from the capital's grand main thoroughfare Rustaveli Avenue, where tumbledown courtyards nestle behind ornate facades and basic infrastructure like drainage often needs modernisation.

"The authorities are spending money on beautification, but basic, important things are left unmaintained. If you don't improve the infrastructure, it makes no sense to paint the facades," said urban planning expert Levan Asabashvili.

The flood deaths caused nationwide shock, although it is not uncommon for decrepit houses to collapse during strong seasonal winds and rains which batter a city where some buildings are slowly crumbling after years of neglect and a major earthquake a decade ago.

President Saakashvili toured the flood-hit Ortachala district on Sunday and tried to console distraught relatives of the victims, promising action to rid the city of substandard accommodation and telling residents that they "should not have been living in such conditions."

"We should do everything to prevent people from living in such slums," he said.

For the past three years, the city authorities have been running a gentrification project called "New Life for Old Tbilisi" that offers private developers municipal backing to revitalise charming but careworn neighbourhoods while resettling people in newer apartments.

Campaigners have alleged that despite the need for reconstruction, some of Tbilisi's architectural heritage is being damaged by inauthentic and rushed restoration work -- although many poorer residents simply live in hope of any improvement to their living conditions.

Analysts meanwhile point out that the authorities have been faced with a huge task and limited resources to address the devastation caused by years of political turmoil, economic collapse and civil war that followed independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

"When this government came to power (after the 2003 Rose Revolution), it was an emergency situation -- the infrastructure had totally disintegrated and there was a high level of corruption. They had to act like crisis managers," said Giorgi Gaganidze of Tbilisi Economic University.

Ironically, the day before the floods hit Ortachala, residents received a glossy promotional magazine from the mayor's office explaining how "unprecedented reconstruction" was turning the capital into "a beautiful European city".

However, as its keynote editorial cautioned: "Much is still to be done."


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