Trouble in Paradise – Fighting Water Pollution in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Part 1: History

BY ROBERT M. SUMMERS, PHD

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is world famous for its beautiful sub-tropical scenery and beaches. But look closely at the waters of Guanabara Bay and the South Atlantic just outside its mouth where Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches are located and you will find that pollution from the 10 million people living in the municipalities surrounding Guanabara Bay has brought big trouble to paradise. Poor sanitation and solid waste handling systems in most areas of the Guanabara Bay Watershed have resulted in high fecal coliform counts, high biochemical oxygen demand, low dissolved oxygen, nutrients, algal blooms, industrial contamination and large amounts of floating debris. Water quality has been in the news lately due to concerns about the upcoming Olympic sailing, windsurfing and other water-related events scheduled for August 2016.

On July 30, 2015, the Associated Press (AP) reported that sampling they commissioned by a Brazilian scientist showed high levels of viruses and some bacteria in areas where the rowing, sailing and triathlon swimming events are scheduled to take place. Brazilian and Olympic officials questioned the use of viral monitoring, stating that they are following Brazilian and World Health Organization protocols for bacterial monitoring that show that the water meets Brazilian standards. A few weeks later, the AP reported that 13 rowers on the 40-member U.S. Junior Rowing team competing in the World Junior Rowing Championships in Rio had contracted stomach illnesses. The article noted, however, that the rate of illness in nearly 500 rowers from other countries was not higher than expected for a group of this size, resulting in speculation that the source of the U.S. team’s illnesses was something other than the water quality. U.S. Rowing is investigating the illnesses.

Rio Beach
Sewage contaminated stormwater discharge across Copacabana Beach (Photo by R. Summers)

Regardless of the controversy over monitoring methods and the cause of the athletes’ illnesses, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned, and the AP, the International Olympic Committee and the Rio Department of the Environment have pledged to continue monitoring and reporting results to the athletes and the public. With just a year remaining until the Olympics, it will not be possible to make significant progress on sewage collection and treatment. Athletes are being advised to follow strict hygiene protective measures, such as rinsing their hands and faces with clean water and showering immediately following their events.

As part of its Olympic bid, the state of Rio de Janeiro committed to install sewer lines and treatment facilities to bring 80% of its citizens on line by the time of the Olympics. Unfortunately, progress has been very slow and this goal is not even coming close to being achieved. Nearly 70% of the residents living in the Guanabara Bay Watershed still lack basic sewage treatment and the large number of citizens living in favelas (“slums”) make it extremely difficult to bring in sewer lines. Raw sewage is flowing with stormwater runoff straight into the streams, rivers, the bay and coastal ocean.

Recognizing that they were not making sufficient progress, the state of Rio de Janeiro turned to Maryland. The two states have had a long-standing cooperative relationship since the 1960s when the two states signed an agreement to participate in student exchange programs and in 1999 when their governors signed a formal Sister-State Agreement. Aware of the restoration efforts in the Chesapeake Bay, Rio asked the U.S. EPA and the state of Maryland for technical assistance in the cleanup of Guanabara Bay.