IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Rio's tainted waterways signal larger ills threatening the Olympics

Rio de Janeiro’s tainted waterways are a risk for Olympic athletes, but they’re also a sign of larger ills that may boil over during the Games.

Rio de Janeiro is a city born by the water, and defined by it. Its very name brings to mind images of palm-fringed sunsets over the Atlantic. This exuberant setting was used to entice the International Olympic Committee into choosing Rio as host of the 2016 Games: The video IOC members watched before voting had shot after gorgeous shot of runners jogging by Guanabara Bay shining golden in the afternoon sun; of volleyball players arching over a net on Ipanema beach; and of rowers coursing through a lagoon that reflects the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer.

The IOC went for it. The rhetoric was just right: The city’s bid promised “Green Games for a Blue Planet,” a sustainable Olympics that would have environment at its heart. Rio looked the part. What the images didn’t show — what locals had long known — was that these postcard settings reeked of sewage. Basic sanitation and drainage has been a historic problem in this swampy city built over ocean-level alluvial plains at the forested mountains.

Author Juliana Barbassa. (Photo by Nadia Sussman)
Author Juliana Barbassa.

But with one year to go until the Games, the bodies of water that make Rio so naturally beautiful, and that will host Olympic events, are foul with sewage. A recent Associated Press analysis of water quality found dangerous levels of viruses and bacteria in Olympic and Paralympic sailing, swimming, canoeing and rowing events.

This is not news to Cariocas, as Rio residents are known. The very river that gave the population its name — the Carioca River — runs gray and dead, a sewage canal that empties into Guanabara Bay. Locals are used to checking their newspaper to find out which beaches are safe for bathing on any given day, and which would put them at risk of diarrhea, respiratory ailments or worse. The state treats less than two-thirds of its sewage; the rest of it flows in natura through creeks and rivers into the many lagoons that break up the urban landscape, and eventually into the Bay. That’s about 480 Olympic-sized swimming pool’s worth of sewage. Every day.

Unfulfilled promises to clean this up at significant public expense are not new either. Hosting the 1992 UN Environmental conference sparked a big push to improve the quality of the bay’s water. But more than $1.17 billion later (part from international lenders, part from the state government), not one of the four treatment stations built to process sewage is fully operational.

The Pan American Games, held in Rio in 2007, were proposed as another chance for the city to set right decades of serious neglect. But although the competition billed at $250 million ended up costing taxpayers more than $1.15 billion, a federal auditing body found environmental efforts were “timid, insufficient.”

Then came the Olympics, once again presented as an opportunity to do right. Rio's governor, Sergio Cabral, promised residents the Games would bring "more sewage treatment, more in terms of the environment, social services, in terms of sport and culture. The legacy for the city and the state will be extraordinary." Officials budgeted $4 billion to expand basic sanitation infrastructure. The bay, they said, would be 80% cleaner after 2016.

RELATED: Pope Francis: Save the Amazon

Failure to fulfill these environmental commitments will pose a risk to athletes. Experts who reviewed the AP’s viral tests found high counts of viruses that can cause respiratory and digestive diseases such as diarrhea and vomiting, but can also lead to more serious heart, brain and other ailments.

But more importantly, long after the Games’ closing ceremony, Rio’s residents will continue to suffer these health consequences. The situation in Brazil as a whole is even worse: only 39% of population have their wastewater treated, and the research institution Trata Brasil found that at the current pace, it would take the country 129 years to achieve universal sanitation.

Rio de Janeiro’s Olympics were supposed to show the world a new, can-do Brazil, a place with an improved economy, raising life quality for all, inviting investment and tourism. “Our hour has arrived,” said then-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, dabbing his eyes as he heard the IOC’s choice.

Now the Games will highlight instead Rio officials’ inability to deliver essential services even as billions are spent on grandiose infrastructures, many of which are already over budget. The Olympics will also be a reminder of Rio de Janeiro’s — and Brazil’s — deeper, long-entrenched problems: mismanagement, misspending of public funds and corruption.

Brazilian frustration with these old haunts boiled over in the year leading up to the 2014 World Cup, when hundreds of thousands poured into the streets demanding transparency in government, more accountable politicians, plus public policies and spending that are responsive to their needs: “Schools not stadiums”, posters said; “Stop the thievery or we stop the country!” and “Where are our taxes going?”

Since then, a wide-ranging corruption scandal involving Brazil’s state-controlled oil company, leading politicians and the country’s largest construction firms — the same ones responsible for Rio’s expensive Olympic venues — has landed leading executives in jail. This has further strained the public’s goodwill toward the Games, and deepened their disregard for the political figures and construction magnates who championed the bid and stood to gain from it.

The AP’s independent investigation into Rio’s foul waters was further proof that once again, the greatest needs of Cariocas were being neglected even as public wealth was being squandered on venues with little use for the general population. Whether the people of Rio will take the streets in protest, as they did before the World Cup, remains to be seen. But it is clear that the population is far less tolerant of a government whose priorities do not reflect their own — and each putrid whiff of sewage these days serves as a reminder of these shortfalls. 

Juliana Barbassa is the author of Dancing with the Devil in the City of God. A native of Brazil, she previously served as the Associated Press’ Rio de Janeiro correspondent.