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article imageOp-Ed: Rio's Guanabara Bay —Photographers dream or an athletes cesspool?

By Karen Graham     Jan 11, 2014 in Environment
Rio De Janeiro - Rio de Janeiro has faced decades of poor planning and outright neglect in cleaning up their waterways. Endless beaches combined with lush tropical forests make Rio a photographers delight, as long as one remembers to stay out of the water.
On the western shore of Guanabara Bay lies the city of Rio de Janeiro. Rio, as it is usually called, is the capital of the state of Rio de Janeiro, and is the second largest city in Brazil. There are over 6.3 million people in the city proper alone, and another 12 million in the metropolitan area.
Satellite picture of Guanabara Bay — with Rio de Janeiro (left)  Niterói (right)  and the Atlanti...
Satellite picture of Guanabara Bay — with Rio de Janeiro (left), Niterói (right), and the Atlantic Ocean (bottom).
Rio de Janeiro, in looking to be on top the world's stage, not only with the 2014 FIFA World Cup Games coming up, but also with hosting the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, has made lots of promises, perhaps more promises than they can fulfill in order to prove themselves worthy.
One of the biggest promises Rio made to the Olympic Committee was a commitment, made in writing, to clean up the heavily polluted Guanabara Bay. In fact, many people felt this pledge would force authorities to get to work in correcting a situation that had been going on for decades.
With Sugar Loaf Mountain guarding its entrance, the bay was once both beautiful and haunting in its enchantment. Its once rich and diversified ecosystems have suffered over the years because of urbanization, deforestation, and pollution of its waters with sewage, garbage, and oil spills. The once clear waters of the bay near the shoreline are now tainted brown.
Today, the bay is a settling pond for two-thirds of Rio de Janeiro's raw sewage waste. Rio's Deputy State Secretary of Environment, Gelson Serva says only 34 percent of the raw sewage in Rio is treated, the rest is spilled raw, into the bay. Refrigerators, television sets, old mattresses and more plastic bags then anyone can possibly count float on the waters of the once pristine bay. The shores in many places are obstacle courses of broken bottles, plastic bags, garbage, old tires and fecal material.
One view of the bay with Sugar Loaf Mt. in the background. Notice the brown discoloration of the wat...
One view of the bay with Sugar Loaf Mt. in the background. Notice the brown discoloration of the water closer to shore.
This week's Brazil Sailing Cup brought home the dangers of not only sailing on the waters, but inadvertently falling overboard. Sailors had to learn how to evade floating furniture, plastic articles getting intertwined in rudders as well as not swallowing the water if they were dumped in.
Rio has promised to make it their goal of treating 80 percent of their raw sewage. I guess this is the goal set for the 2016 Olympics and means they have about 30 months or so to reach that goal. Rio's Environmental Institute (INEA) assesses the water quality weekly in the state's beaches. So far, most of the beaches have been repeatedly considered unsuitable for swimming.
It is estimated that 18,000 liters a second of sewage is produced by the population of the 15 cities surrounding the bay. Most of the people live in poor and unsanitary conditions, often without any indoor plumbing. The 55 rivers running into the bay are another problem. Most all of them are now dead from an ecological standpoint, and continue to flow into the bay, bringing even more pollution.
Biologist Mario Moscatelli is an outspoken environmentalist, and says he can't understand why the government has waited four years after getting the bid to host the Summer Games before saying they were going to do something. One of the measures planned was the building of seven river treatment units. Only one has been built.
In response, Gelson Serva says the government needs time to plan actions and has invested $1 billion in projects dealing with sanitation issues. He says, "We are facing a huge challenge, caused by decades of neglect. There are no immediate solutions. We're going step-by-step and the population will feel improvements in the next years."
There are a number of stop-gap measures in place, which in the long run are not contributing to the overall solution. There are several "Eco-barriers" that have been placed at the mouths of some of the rivers, and "Eco-boats" go around picking up the rubbish from the waters. Leona Deckelbaum. an ardent environmentalist, says the amount of fecal contamination in the bay is 198 times higher than the legal limit in the United States. She went on to say, "I wouldn't put my little pinky toe in it."
What is worrisome is the fact that the technology is available, and the funds are in place, that is, as long as corruption and political wrangling isn't allowed to take a front seat to the issue. But, as with the fiasco we have already seen with the FIFA World Cup and the Sochi Winter Games, it seems to almost be a losing battle.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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