Sewage, garbage and oil leaks. These are the main problems faced by the balmy Guanabara Bay, in Rio de Janeiro, the venue to host ten olympic sailing disciplines from August 2 to 9, when 324 athletes and 250 boats from over 30 countries will compete in the first of 45 events in the build-up to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
According to analysts, the main source of the pollution of Guanabara Bay is the household sewage from the 15 surrounding municipalities, which is discharged into the bay untreated. The finding has been confirmed by the Committee of the Guanabara Bay Basin and also by experts on water resources and environment.
Professor Paulo Canedo from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro says that the oil leaks are another contributing factor, though less significant than sewage and garbage.
“Oil leaks make up the third largest source of pollution. When it happens, it’s regarded as a disaster and hits the headlines. But that’s only so because we’ve grown used to faeces. Newspapers should actually be showing how dirty our water is every single day,” he argued.
In his opinion, it is necessary to set priorities. ” How should other factors, like oil, be addressed if we can’t tackle sewage and trash?” the professor questions.
He further says that “collecting sewage is not enough. We must treat it appropriately, so that the liquid waste is no longer that toxic. As for the solid part, the so-called mud from the treatment plant, should be taken to sanitary landfills.”
Alexandre Braga, executive secretary at the Committee of the Guanabara Bay Basin, points out that other problems contribute to pollution, “such as inadequate dredging, the leachate from former dumps… But, the sewage we’re letting into the bay is definitely the greatest burden on our shoulders,” he states.
The main initiative from the State Secretariat for the Environment aimed at solving the problem is the Program for the Sanitation of the Municipalities Surrounding Guanabara Bay, which includes a US$ 663 million investment to be made by 2016 in sanitation works in 15 municipalities. The goal is to make basic sanitation services reach 80 percent of Rio’s population by 2018.
Between August 2 and 9, Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro will be in the spotlight of nautical sports as 324 athletes and 250 boats from over 30 countries compete in ten Olympic disciplines of sailing. This is the first of 45 events in the buildup to the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
The Secretariat for the Environment inspected the location of the competitions and found that it was in “appropriate condition”. This is a disputed view, however. Members of the bay have mixed opinions on the quality of the water.
Ricardo Ermel, Operations Manager at Marina da Glória, for one, reported that the amount of spilled oil in the water has been reduced, but the amount of trash floating on the surface has increased in recent decades.
“Indeed, the bay water looks a lot fresher now. I even saw dolphins in the bay again last year, and there were fish and turtles too. I don’t have any concerns about skin infections. But when it rains heavily I stay clear of swimming because all city garbage, sewage and rivers flow right into the bay,” he said.
Naval Academy Commander Marcelo Campos complains the debris found in the water damages will all too often damage the vessels. “Even a small plastic bag could get stuck in an engine cooling system and cause serious damage. A floating couch or a plastic chair hitting a propeller causes enormous damage, and so do PET bottles.”
Another bay user, Carlos Santos, who rents stand-up paddle boards on Flamengo Beach, says the water is in good quality there, noting that no incidents of waterborne diseases, such as hepatitis and skin infections, have been reported among his pupils.
Marco Lemos, Rowing VP, Guanabara Club, is far more cautious – at least as concerns Botafogo Beach where the club is located. “Club members do rowing, canoeing, sailing, windsurfing – and now we’ve just introduced stand-up-paddle classes. But one day we had to call off a lesson because the water was so filthy that people were put off with disgust.
“At other times it’s so clean and transparent it hardly looks like Guanabara Bay. You can see the bottom, you can even see the sunken boats at the bottom. But pollution is still there, complete with dirty water and oil spills,” he maintained.
Nawal El Moutawake, Chair of the Coordination Commission for the 2016 Olympics, said she received assurances in March that “the Guanabara Bay water will be clean and safe for the games. This upcoming event will be a test stage for the Olympics. We hope that all promises are fulfilled,” she said.
But infectious disease specialist Edimilson Migowski from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) warns that polluted water can cause serious infectious diseases.
“Our main concern is sewage, because the stool carries viruses which could even cause viral meningitis. Other viruses include the Hepatitis A virus which causes diarrhea, vomiting, etc. And certain kinds of parasites and bacteria, such as salmonella, can also occur.”
Also according to Migowski, tests conducted by environmental agencies rate the water as fit or unfit for bathing based on the presence or absence of fecal coliforms, but do not account for virus concentration. He advises athletes and bathers to vaccinate against hepatitis A before they use Guanabara Bay.