Alarms sound for Rio's water before Olympics

Feb 22, 2016, 3:29 PM EST
Rio de Janeiro. Source: Hector Garcia/flickr
Rio de Janeiro. Source: Hector Garcia/flickr

The Zika virus outbreak in Latin America has many concerned over the Olympic Games that will take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil this year. Indeed, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) concerns about the mosquito-born virus have overshadowed the water contamination issues in local bays and shorelines where Olympians will compete in at least three water events. When Rio received the bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics in 2009, the Brazilian government made a seven-year environmental commitment to clean up the sewage in the surrounding waters. This has not been met.

Prior to selecting Rio de Janeiro, the IOC strategically chose four zones that could be used for the Olympic games. The IOC evaluated Barra, Copacabana beach, Maracana and Deodoro. It determined that Barra, “the heart of the games,” required “considerable infrastructure and accommodation development.” Maracana would also require “major redevelopment of the Port of Rio de Janeiro and the revitalization of the entire zone.” Deodora as well lacked infrastructure. With the highest density of young people in Rio de Janiero, the IOC suggested construction of new venues that “would provide significant social opportunities.” The Federal Plan for Growth Acceleration, a guaranteed financing agreement, was estimated at $240 billion. Some of that money was supposed to be used for “the cleaning and regeneration of Rio’s waterways and lakes” along with “major” water and sewage treatment development -- something the city desperately needed.

The government promised to decrease the flow of pollutants into Guanabara Bay by 80% by the time the games ensued. Now, with only six months remaining before the start of the games, environmental secretary, Andrea Correa, said to reporters last Friday that the state would not reach that goal. Correa said that the failure to reduce contamination by 80% would not “at all affect the courses” and that “there’s no big risk for sailors having troubles with illnesses and such things.” Correa added that he was “not worried about water quality in those areas” but he was concerned about floating garbage. The “eco-barriers” -- nets strung at the mouth of some rivers -- have not been effective in stopping debris from reaching the bay. There are plans to deploy “eco-boats” to patrol the waters in order to collect whatever trash the “eco-barriers” fail to catch. 

While Correa does not seem concerned about the water quality, the athletes themselves do not seem as comfortable exposing themselves to potentially hazardous water conditions. Martine Grael, a member of the 2016 Brazilian Olympic Team, grew up in Brazil and has watched the quality of the beaches deteriorate due to a steady influx of trash. She told ESPN that the water is dirty and smells some days. “You don’t need to study a lot to understand that it’s not going well,” she said.

The Associated Press (AP) conducted an investigation and found “dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria.” In five months of testing, the AP found that none of the venues were safe for boating or swimming. Much of that contamination is a result of untreated sewage pouring into the public waterways. John Griffith, a marine biologist from the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project reviewed the results of the AP investigation. He told ESPN that if these levels existed in the U.S., the events would be “shut down immediately.” Rodigo de Freitus Lake tested at between 14 million adenoviruses per liter and 1.7 billion per liter. For comparison, if beaches in Southern California produce test results above 1,000 per liter, authorities sound the alarm. Kristina Mena, an associate professor of public health at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and an expert in water risk assessment, found that there was a 99% chance of being infected by pathogens if athletes ingested as little as three teaspoons of water. While that does not mean that all athletes will get sick, it is obviously concerning. 

Much of the issue stems from the lack of infrastructure in the surrounding favelas. A 2010 census found that 11.25 million people (nearly 6% of the population) live in Brazil’s favelas -- unofficial shanty-towns. The country’s largest favela, Rocinha, has an official population of 70,000 but unofficial estimates are as high as 180,000. Most of the residents lack adequate access to safe roads, clean drinking water and electricity. Many residents improvise their own electrical systems and toilets. The majority of water from sinks, toilets and showers collects in open-air basins or flows down makeshift pipes, untreated, into the water causing an enormous threat to public health. Note that this issue existed long before this year.

Beyond posing a health threat leading into the 2016 Olympics, Rio de Janeiro’s poor water conditions are also indicative of the state’s failure to provide adequate infrastructure and treatment facilities for its residents, especially the poor. With over 70,000 residents living in favelas, most earning less than $300 dollars a month, with little to no infrastructure in place to deal with their waste, the situation is an environmental and health disaster.

During the 2014 World Cup, more than 1 million people protested nationwide against high levels of corruption, lack of public services and the extremely high cost of the Olympic stadium -- an estimated $3.6 billion. Look for a similar reaction over water. After all, Rio de Janeiro was unable to meet its commitment to reduce water pollution by 80%, even with a budget of over $200 billion. Meaning athletes are likely to suffer from ailments related to the high levels of bacterial and viral contamination. And when the Olympics end and the tourists and competitors have all gone home, the people who live in Rocinha will continue to deal with sub-standard water conditions – that is, unless something drastic changes.