RIO DE JANEIRO – Two years after the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and nine after Brazil promised to clean up pollution and other environmental problems for the event, contamination remains as bad as ever in the waters of Guanabara Bay.
The bay, one of Brazil’s most important bodies of water, currently suffers from severe pollution from domestic and industrial wastewater and from the lack of commitment by governmental authorities, who for years have promised to clean up its waters without much in the way of discernible results to date.
The bay is 400 square kilometers (about 154 sq. mi.) in area and the runoff basin that feeds it is some 10 times that size.
Guido Gelli, an environmentalist with more than 40 years of experience who has worked on assorted decontamination projects regarding the bay, told EFE that 8.57 million people live in 15 municipalities in the bay’s runoff basin and dump their sewage directly into Guanabara.
Of that population, corresponding to 70 percent of the people who live in Rio de Janeiro state, about 30 percent live in “favelas” or shantytowns that have no water or sewage system.
Of the 35 rivers that flow into Guanabara Bay through this basin, just five are free of pollution. The rest are cesspools of domestic sewage from the favelas and industrial waste from maritime terminals, ports, shipyards and oil refineries and other industries.
A ray of hope shone on Guanabara Bay in 2009 when Rio was awarded the 2016 Summer Olympics and the Olympic organizing committee promised to decontaminate 80 percent of the wastewater that is dumped into the bay.
By August 2015, according to authorities, just 49 percent of the wastewater had been cleaned and, due to an error in the feasibility studies that was acknowledged by the Rio government, it would be difficult to achieve the promised level of decontamination.
Added to the authorities’ failure to live up to earlier promises was the economic crisis that sank Brazil into a deep depression between 2015-2016, raising the poverty and unemployment indexes.
The result of the confluence of misfortunes was that by September 2018, government and research agencies examining the issue told EFE that the 49 percent figure had never actually been attained and that in reality by 2016 only 35 percent of the wastewater was being treated.
Currently, estimates are that the wastewater treatment level may have increased to about 40 percent and – if the Inter-American Development Bank program to push forward with this project were to be renewed – possibly up to 60 percent of the wastewater could be treated, but not 80 percent, as authorities had promised, the bay’s environmental coordinator, Federico Menezes Cohelo, told EFE.
Gelli told EFE that the problem certainly does “have a solution,” as other cities around the world have made significant progress in this area, “but it depends on social and economic management in a country where the situation is not at all simple.”