A dirty shame

The Rio 2016 Olympics provided the city with an excellent opportunity to solve a decades-old wastewater treatment problem. Too bad it was wasted.

“We’re going to do things our way,” Rodrigo Tostes, chief operating officer of the Rio 2016 Organising Committee, told an audience last week during an event aimed at dispelling fears surrounding the Rio Olympic Games, due to kick off on 5 August.

He said that while Rio used “good examples” of other host cities, it did not copy them. Unfortunately, one way the Rio Games will indeed differ from previous Olympics is the fact that athletes will be competing in waters that several scientists say (see here, here and here) contain viruses and super bacteria. In fact, some reports are already surfacing of athletes who got sick during test runs. The discovery is not new; neither is the problem, nor its causes – household waste being illegally dumped into storm drains that end up contaminating Guanabara Bay and other bodies of water.

“Our top priority is the health of our athletes and we don’t negotiate that,” said Leonardo Espindola, who as chief secretary of the Governor’s office oversees all Games-related initiatives on behalf of the state of Rio de Janeiro. “Guanabara Bay is huge. We have more than 8.5 million [people] living around Guanabara Bay. What we’re talking about is the six lanes [where] we have the [sailing] competitions and the six lanes are great according to the standards of the World Health Organisation.”

Be that as it may, when asked why the city failed to fulfill its promise of cleaning up the Bay – a pledge it made as part of its official bid in 2009 – Espindola responded: “We didn’t achieve the 80 percent [target] but it’s important to say we jumped from 11 percent of sewage treatment to more than 50 percent. We did a great job”.

We respectfully disagree. The 51 percent figure that Espindola cited was a target to treat Rio's sewage set way back in 1994, when the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Inter-American Development Bank provided the state of Rio some $1 billion in funding to invest in its wastewater sector. The programme was supposed to be completed in 1998, but in 2011 sewage collection facilities were still unfinished, leading JICA to conclude that the project was “unsatisfactory”. The lack of sufficient collection facilities meant that the three wastewater treatment plants that were built were essentially ineffective, with the volume of treated sewage remaining low.

What's more, the discussion may have focused on Guanabara Bay, but popular beaches such as Ipanema and Leblon also tested positive for the super bacteria as did Copacabana and Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas where the swimming and rowing events will be held. 

In trying to understand the reasons behind this foul problem, we spoke with several sources in Brazil. “There is not one straight answer but rather a combination of factors,” one source told us, citing such reasons as poor judgement, politics and corruption.

Political discontinuity is clearly highlighted in JICA’s analysis. “The state governor changed four times after signing of the loan agreement [in March 1994]. “Each time a new governor took office, many staff members of the CEDAE were replaced, causing confusion in the project implementation,” JICA wrote, referring to the municipal water utility responsible for treating Rio’s wastewater.

Another problem is that while Brazil passed the National Policy on Waste Management (PNRS) bill in 2010, that law did not provide funding for municipalities to enforce it. But if the problem is a shortage of funds, why haven’t municipalities sought the help of the private sector?

The answer is they have – granting concessions primarily to Brazilian construction companies such as Odebrecht, OAS and Camargo Correa. These groups have dominated the sector due to their deep knowledge of the local market and the synergies they had with the industry, according to one source. But many of these companies now find themselves embroiled in the gigantic corruption scandal highlighted by Brazil’s ‘Operation Car Wash’. This development could very well present opportunities for foreign investors, one person said. “That is a breath of fresh air because we would expect foreign investors to be more compliant.”

Espindola promises that efforts to clean up Guanabara Bay will continue even after the Games. If he’s proven true, then foreign investors may well find fresh opportunities in Brazil’s wastewater sector. Only then would the organising committee’s pledges to “transform people’s lives” start to gain real substance.

Write to the author at kalliope.g@peimedia.com