Rio was one of the first cities in the world to have a water supply
system, and the fifth to have a sewer treatment plant. With the enormous influx of
inhabitants in the last half century, however, the sewer network has collapsed.
By Eliza Bonner
From my office window a huge expanse of unnaturally brown water shimmers deceptively,
brilliantly, in the Rio sunshine. It is Guanabara Bay, the once pristine body of water
where the Portuguese landed 500 years ago amid teeming herds of whales and dolphins. The
whales disappeared in the 1700’s and the dolphins in the 1960’s, and the Bay, once riotous
with its variety of marine life, is now a deadened ecosystem, a toxic dumping ground
sullied by centuries of human carelessness and predation.
From a distance, the Guanabara basin is still an area of stunning natural beauty, its
4,000 km2 of water ringed by beaches, vegetation and the buildings of Rio.
While preservation of the Bay has never been high on Brazil’s agenda, severe environmental
degradation has become acute over the last 50 years due to uncontrolled deforestation,
illegal squatting on margins of lakes and rivers, discharge of untreated sewer and
improper disposal of industrial, hospital and residential solid waste.
Rio was one of the first cities in the world to have a water supply system, and the
fifth to have a sewer treatment plant. With the enormous influx of inhabitants in the last
half century, the sewer network has finally collapsed. The results of this failure include
polluted soil, surface water, the underground water table, and other major bodies of
water, including the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas and the ocean. Besides the environmental
destruction, an obvious effect of this contamination is the spread of disease, including
intestinal parasites, infectious hepatitis, typhoid fever and dengue.
CEDAE, the state-owned water and sewerage company, estimates that 477 tons of pollution
discharge daily into the Bay, of which 400 tons is raw sewage runoff, primarily from the
twenty-seven surrounding shantytowns. Only 60-70 tons of sewer are treated. Industrial
waste lags behind at 64 tons, and domestic and other trash comprise the remainder.
Solid waste numbers present another startling reality. One Brazilian produces
approximately 0.5 to 1.0 kg of waste per day, with a typical 5-person household producing
910 to 1825 kg yearly. The city of Rio de Janeiro produces, every two months, the
equivalent of one Maracanã stadium full of garbage. The quantity of trash not collected
and thrown into the nearest waterway often causes blockages and subsequent flooding and
mudslides, some of which are catastrophic.
Although 75% of Brazilians live in urban centers, only 25% have access to sewer and
waste systems. Trash collection and sewer treatment in the slums is a priority, but
project execution is difficult due to the dangerous nature of these drug-plagued
communities, their propensity to flood, limited vehicle access, and lack of interest in
Despite lower indices, industrial pollution is far from benign. Between 1995 and 1997,
the Bay experienced 99 ecological accidents, including chemical and oil spills. Of the
6,000 industries in the basin, dominated by chemical, metallurgy and oil, a mere 49 of
them produce 80% of the industrial refuse. Reports state that one refinery alone produces
20% of the industrial pollution.
Although a slew of wordy environmental laws exist, enforcement is lax, and some areas
remain untouched. For example, Brazilian law does not require industries to have waste
minimization programs; consequently sanitation dumps are inadequately maintained and are
still the final destination for most collected waste, including hazardous substances.
Despite high levels of technology, only recently have industries considered incorporating
environmental management strategies into their operations, mainly because they realized
that prevention is more cost-effective than attempted monitoring of pollution, subsequent
environmental degradation and fines imposed on the destruction wrought. Only in 1981 did
FEEMA, the federal environmental licensing and monitoring agency, begin registering
industrial activities that generate hazardous waste.
In 1994, Rio resolved to take one of its most drastic pollution problems in hand. Thus
was conceived the PDBG – Programa de Despoluição da Baía de Guanabara, or the Guanabara
Bay Clean Up Program. At that time, the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB), Japan Bank
(previously the OECF) and the State Government of Rio signed a financing agreement that
would provide $793 million, later increased to $1 billion, to fund the first of two phases
of the Program.
The PDBG’s general objectives are to clean up the Bay and the surrounding basin,
simultaneously improving the quality of life of its 7.7 million residents. Six subprojects
within the PDBG have been underway for six years in an attempt to reach those lofty goals.
These six ambitious and necessary projects sadly highlight the deplorable state of
Rio’s infrastructure. The first and undoubtedly most urgent issue is the raw sewer runoff,
to be tamped following construction of sewer treatment plants and collectors, and a
network that will connect these plants to the most heavily populated areas around the Bay.
Given the urgency of reducing sewage pollutants, 80% of Phase I funds were directed
towards basic sanitation projects. Separate but connected are the second and third
subprojects, which will expand potable water supplies through additional pumping stations
and distribution tanks, and improve solid waste collection and disposal. In the effort to
correct centuries of no control over urban waste, trash collection will increase, solid
waste transfer stations, incinerators and recycling plants will be rehabilitated, and
trash collection and disposal procedures will be intensified.
The remaining three subprojects include canal and river drainage with projects to
prevent habitual flooding, digital mapping, environmental programs to control industrial
contamination, and environmental education for the population living around the Bay.
Three major activities are planned to reduce industrial waste. First is identification
of the various types of residuals generated by industries. Next planned are measures to
impose controls on the generators, transporters and receivers of industrial waste.
Finally, a program to recycle 40% of the industrial waste will be developed.
Educational training was factored into the project cost as one of the IDB’s funding
requirements. It was found that residents saw projects happening in their neighborhoods
and did not understand the purpose. When polled, some people (principally those with only
a grade school education) thought the quality of the water was fine. As with sewer, the
majority of the residential trash is generated by the surrounding favelas.
Recycling is an unknown activity, and most people do not understand the ecological, social
or sanitary importance of not throwing trash into the nearest gutter or river. Even when
trash collection programs exist, it is difficult or impossible for garbage trucks to get
up narrow streets built without engineering specifications. In some places there are no
streets at all. Finally, the slums in Rio have a deserved dangerous reputation, and many
people, including city workers, refuse to enter unfamiliar marginal communities for fear
of being shot.
Five hundred public school professors have been trained to teach their students about
the PDBG. Also planned is dissemination of information about the PDBG through the media,
and by means of artistic/cultural and sports events involving the populations affected by
The original completion date of Phase I projects financed by the IDB was March 1999,
recently extended to March 2001. The termination date of July 2003 for projects funded by
Japan Bank remains unchanged. Construction of four new sewage collection and treatment
plants, and reforms in four others, were planned for Phase I. To date, two are on-line,
while the remaining six are scheduled to become operational at various points throughout
the year. The 1080 km extension of the sewer network is approximately 35% complete.
Negotiations for financing Phase II are underway, with requirements estimated at
approximately $1.6 billion. Japan Bank will not participate in funding Phase II, citing
plans to dedicate more funds to Asia and less-developed areas such as the northeast of
Brazil. The IDB, although it has expressed frustration at the inefficiency and slowness of
"typical Brazilian bureaucracy", signed a Letter of Intent with the Government
and is evaluating Phase II projects, largely extensions of the work done in Phase I.
Additionally, in 1999 CEDAE signed an agreement with the US Trade & Development Agency
to develop a project to handle the 413 tons of sludge that will remain after daily
treatment of the raw sewage.
While Phase I was essentially a basic sanitation program, Phase II has a $100 million
environmental component, which revolves around replanting of mangroves and monitoring of
water quality. This effort is even more urgent after January’s oil spill, as virtually
100% of the remaining mangroves, already reduced by half over the last 30 years, were
destroyed. The mangroves are top priority for the environmental groups due to the fact
that they are fundamental to the continuation of life, including human, in and around the
Bay. Mangroves are hatcheries and nurseries for countless species of insects, crustaceans,
fish and birds. Without this beginning of life there can be no continuation, and humans
are already being severely affected by the fall-off in numbers of fish and decreasing
biodiversity. General consensus is that another 15 years of work, investment and education
will be required before Guanabara Bay will be considered clean.
Inhabitants of Rio believe the PDBG a necessary effort, but the construction delays and
funding issues leave them unconvinced of its success. Additionally, after the oil spill
there is more to clean up now than there was six years ago. Officially, the Government
touts the Program’s marginal achievements. Unofficially, it is commonly held that more
drastic measures must be taken. It seems that a vital missing component is the realization
that it is everyone’s responsibility to clean up the Bay, not just the government’s, the
environmental groups’ or the marginal communities that live on the water’s edge.
Eliza Bonner is an American living in Rio de Janeiro. She can be reached