Rio de Janeiro, host of the 2016 Olympic Games, is plagued by waterways polluted with garbage, raw sewage and untreated hospital waste.
In 2009, as part of its Olympics Legacy commitment, Brazil’s government dedicated itself to cleaning up Rio’s rivers and estuary in time for the Games. That initiative — conducted by federal, state and city government, as well as private companies, has been a near total failure.
As a result, participants in Olympic sailing and swimming events may be exposed to dangerous levels of unhealthy viruses and bacteria.
Of particular concern: scientists have found superbugs — antibiotic resistant bacteria — in the waters at several locations where aquatic events are being held.
When Rio de Janeiro won the bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games — set to begin on August 5th — the Brazilian government committed itself to cleaning up the city’s notoriously dirty waters as part of its Olympics legacy. These goals were institutionalized in the Responsibility Matrix, a document that gathers together commitments made by the federal, state, and municipal governments presented to the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
That was in 2009. Seven years and US$10 billion later, both the state and city have announced that they won’t meet any of their environmental goals.
As a result, Rio’s waterways — including bays and lagoons that will host Olympic sailing and swimming events — contain a foul soup of trash, raw sewage, hospital waste, and even super bacteria.
The opportunity to improve the quality of Rio’s waters, and therefore the population’s quality of life, was squandered, critics say, due to a mix of government and business inefficiency, excessive bureaucracy, and possibly, acts of corruption.
Rio’s problems, however, are not limited to the environmental arena. In June, the interim governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Francisco Dornelles, declared “a state of calamity” over finances. He announced that unless the federal government delivered emergency funding, the city wouldn’t be able to provide even the most basic of services — including health, safety and the environment — during (and after) the Games. A few days later, the federal government declared the release of US$1 billion to cover Olympic security.
Meanwhile, the Federal Public Ministry is investigating possible corruption regarding federal funds slated for the construction of Olympic venues and city infrastructure, including a new subway line that will link Ipanema and Copacabana to the Olympic Park.
The Federal Ministry also filed a civil suit against the federal and state governments, the city and the Olympic Public Authority (APO) regarding their failure in supplying Olympic deliverables — infrastructure and services — promised in the Olympic Legacy Plan and the Games Legacy Use Plan which were created seven years ago.
About 70 percent of the sewage in the Rio metropolitan area, home to more than 12 million people — is released daily without treatment into Guanabara Bay, where the upcoming Olympic sailing completion is to take place.
According to the Responsibility Matrix, the state government committed in 2009 to the goal of an 80 percent reduction in untreated sewage and floating debris in the bay, and in the Barra da Tijuca and Jacarepaguá lagoons.
André Corrêa, Secretary for the Environment in the state of Rio de Janeiro, told Mongabay that one reason for the failure is lack of money. The Secretariat recently completed a sanitation plan for the 16 municipalities surrounding the bay, but found that at least US$5 billion will be needed for the plan’s implementation.
“The state doesn’t have these resources nowadays,” said Corrêa, who has been on the job since 2015. Brazil is currently suffering one of its worst economic recessions, and the state of Rio de Janeiro has been especially hard hit because so much of its revenue comes from oil and gas — the state oil company has been at the center of the massive Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) corruption investigation.
During the Guanabara Bay Cleanup Program conducted from 1991 to 2006, Rio did make some progress toward clean water. Desperately needed wastewater treatment plants were built. But they’ve always run below capacity, partly because the sewer lines needed to bring sewage from many residential areas to the plants were never built.
Some improvements are being carried out now, according to Corrêa, such as the installation of a sewage collection system near the Novo Rio bus terminal where wastewater flows into the Mangue canal, which in turn flows to Guanabara Bay — part of Rio’s estuary.
“One of the biggest mistakes of the cleanup program was to contract separately for the works of the sanitation systems: it was one bid process for the treatment facilities, another for sewage collection, and a third for the secondary networks,” said the secretary. “Not to mention that the Guanabara Bay has several [sanitation and environmental] managers and no common planning.”
Those complex contract arrangements facilitated confusion, and possibly wrongdoing. The State Water and Sewage Company (Cedae) has been under the scrutiny of the Brazilian Federal Police for over a year now.
The state-run company is the target of an investigation that is scrutinizing “sewage emission crimes, [involving the disposal of waste] without adequate treatment, in[to] the waters of the Guanabara Bay and Barra da Tijuca and Jacarepaguá lakes region,” says a police statement. The authorities are looking into “suspicions that the company responsible for waste processing has been collecting fees for a service not properly done.”
It isn’t only Rio’s state government that has completely failed to meet the environmental goals of the 2016 Olympics. In its bid to win the right to hold the Games, Rio’s city government announced a plan to clean up the rivers of the Jacarepaguá basin.
In 2011, the city commissioned Andrade Gutierrez and Carioca Engenharia, two large Brazilian construction companies, to conduct the clean up and to channelize the rivers. In December 2015, repeated work delays resulted in the revoking of those contracts. Both firms have also been denounced for corruption uncovered by the Lava Jato investigation.
Lack of foresight and oversight
The battle to save Rio’s acutely polluted rivers and estuary is not new. In recent decades, there have been several attempts to clean up the city’s waters, said ecologist José Galizia Tundisi, a leading expert in water resources.
“What I see happening in Brazil is the following: the diagnosis is always correct; there’s technology and money [available to get the job done]. The precariousness lays in the planning and execution, with terrible timetables and low efficiency. The Rio Olympics is an example: flawed management, hindering bureaucracy, and little accountability, with results shorter than expected,” said Tundisi
The Feevale University professor also blames shortsightedness: with each new federal, state and city administration only pursuing short term goals: “In my 50-year career, I only met a very few officials (mayors, governors and even presidents) interested in conducting a national sanitation project. There are initiatives here and there, but a Brazilian mobilization project doesn’t arise. Those investments would generate jobs, business opportunities and new ventures. They are missed opportunities.”
Tundisi rejects the excuse that Rio’s pollution and sanitation problems come primarily as a result of the current economic downturn, explaining that it is far less expensive to conserve a resource before it is ruined, than to restore it later. “That’s very difficult to be understood by the [federal, state and city] governments. Financial resources weren’t scarce before the economic crisis. The problems are the [governments’ poor] priorities.”
TVs, sofas, sewage
Go to Rio’s waters and you might see anything: a discarded baby stroller, trashed electronic appliances, floating plastics and feces. “We live in a situation in which almost the [entirety of] Rio’s hydrographic structure is overloaded with sewage and garbage,” said biologist Mário Moscatelli.
Moscatelli has shown just how much one person can do, via focused sustained effort. The environmentalist began restoring Rio’s native mangroves singlehandedly in 1988. By his own initiative, he’s planted and looked after tree seedlings along a 1.8-mile stretch of shore on the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon.
Today, many of these white, red and black mangrove trees have grown to a height of up to 26 feet, and they harbor prolific wildlife, ranging from birds (like the Black-Crowned Night Heron, Common Gallinule and Cormorant), to crustaceans (including the Aratu Crab and Atlantic Mud Fiddler Crab).
Moscatelli says that the Olympic Games created an ideal opportunity to reforest the city. He devised a project, approved by the Environmental State Secretariat, to plant 500,000 seedlings in the years leading up to the Games. Unfortunately, the funds set aside for this work, and for the cleansing of the Barra Lagoon, were confiscated in May 2015 by the Federal Public Ministry to pay the unpaid wages of Rio public pensioners and retirees.
“30,000 seedlings had been purchased before the seizure. We’re making an effort to plant them, otherwise they would be lost,” said Moscatelli. Half are already growing around the Olympic Park, while the rest are being planted along the Camorim canal, which links the Jacarapeguá and Barra da Tijuca lagoons.
Superbugs in Rio waters
A shortage of trees and untreated sewage are common problems for cities in the developing world. But another challenge Rio faces is new: studies have found superbugs — bacteria with high resistance to antibiotics — in Rio’s waters.
In 2013, water samples collected by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) from the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon — which will host the Olympic Games’ canoe sprint and rowing races — were found to contain superbugs.
That same year, super resistant bacteria were found in water samples in the Carioca River, a stream which originates in an environmental preservation area, runs under several neighborhoods, receives untreated sewage from homes and hospitals, and flows directly into Guanabara Bay.
A study conducted by scientist Ana Paula Assef and published this May in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, by the American Society for Microbiology, “reveals the presence of carbapenemases (blaKPC, blaNDM, blaGES, eblaOXA48-like) in important aquatic environments of Rio”
Carbapenemases are a group of bacterial enzymes that act to provide resistance to carbapenems — an important and broad-spectrum class of antibiotics used to treat infections caused by multidrug-resistant bacteria.
Infections caused by multi-resistant bacteria are extremely difficult to combat; there are very few therapeutic options against these pathogens. They first emerged in the second half of the 1990s and gained momentum in the following decade, when the superbug KPC was first detected in the United States.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), infections caused by superbugs still primarily occur in hospital settings, but they are already being found outside these locations.
KPC on the beach
A study conducted by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), found superbugs in the waters at five of the city’s most popular beaches — including Botafogo, Flamengo, Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana. The Olympic sailing competition is to be held in the waters off Flamengo beach, while the marathon swimming and swimming triathlon are to be held in the waters off Copacabana beach.
Samples of surface waters collected at those five beaches between December 2013 and September 2014 presented, respectively, 100%, 90%, 60%, 50% and 10% of contamination by various types of superbugs including: Acinetobacter spp, Pseudomonas spp., Aeromonas spp., members of the Enterobacteriaceae (which produce carbapenemases), with KPC (Klebsiella pneumoniae carbapenemase) the most common.
Multi-resistance related enzymes, bacteria and elements detected in the water included: NDM enzymes (New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase), IMP (imipenemase), VIM (Verona imipenemase), SPM-1 (São Paulo metallo-beta-lactamase), OXA-48 (oxacilinase) and GES (Guyana Extented-spectrum).
“Bacteria are common in hospitals and inevitably end up in the sewers. The lack of adequate treatment for such [hospital] waste allowed the superbugs to arrive at the Rio beaches,” said Renata Picão, study coordinator and professor of the Paulo de Góes Microbiology Institute at Rio de Janeiro Federal University. “Even developed countries don’t eliminate them altogether in the [sewage] treatment plants, although they’re significantly reduced.”
Patients with weakened immune systems are vulnerable to super bacteria; simple biological infections by super bacteria can be severe, sometimes untreatable and therefore fatal.
“We still know very little, [such as] how long [super bacteria] stay in the human body, for instance,” or what happens to them immediately after they are excreted. “During that period, the excrement of the infected person ends up in the sewer,” said the microbiologist.
It doesn’t help that sanitation data from Rio hospitals are difficult to obtain. “The Brazilian legislation requires that the [hospital sanitation] information is published, but there’s no supervision,” so it doesn’t happen.
Athletes at risk?
In December, 2014, scientist Renata Picão and the Environmental State Institute (Inea) held a press conference to disclose the first Rio superbugs research. In January, 2015, the Rio Olympic Committee asked Picão for a meeting. The sustainability staff wanted to know if the superbugs could leave the athletes sick.
“I answered that it was not possible to know at that point because the study was in its initial stage, but it was important to monitor the condition of the competitors. We have no idea for how long a person’s body is colonized by a superbug,” said Picão.
Months after the meeting, she sent an email to the committee: “I reinforced the importance of monitoring the athletes, and offered to do that work, but never got an answer.”
The UFRJ microbiologist believes that the Rio Olympic Committee and the state of Rio de Janeiro should carefully observe participating athletes before, during and after the Games. “This is a global problem: superbugs have already been found in animals, drinking water, rivers, lakes, and sewage samples in Germany, Austria, Canada, China, the US, Morocco and Vietnam, among other countries. We will not know if some athletes have arrived [in Rio already] colonized [with super bacteria] if they don’t go through infectious diseases exams.”
When questioned by Mongabay, Tania Braga, the Rio Olympics Committee sustainability general manager, replied that “the Rio 2016 competitions in natural aquatic environments will be held in appropriate conditions, as proven by recent bacteriological monitoring data. In relation to the KPC bacteria, with the completion of the Marina da Glória sewage gallery by the state government, and the preventive measures taken by the Rio 2016 Committee, there are no risks for the athletes.”
Still, doubts remain. The Marina da Glória sewage gallery, completed by the State Water and Sewage Company last April and five years late, is supposed to prevent the release of raw sewage into Rio waters. But the Brazilian newspaper O Globo reported pollution flowing from a clandestine sewage pipe on the same day the Marina da Glória sewage gallery began operation.
Development vs. modernization
In July 2015, the Associated Press requested a study of Rio waters by virologist Fernando Spilki, a specialist in aquatic ecosystems. The researcher found dangerously high levels of viruses, bacteria and fecal coliforms in the water at Copacabana Beach; the Marina da Glória, which provides access to the Guanabara Bay; and at the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. (This study made no mention of super bacteria.)
The virus concentrations found in these waters were virtually the same as those found in raw sewage. At that time, the Rio Olympics Committee Sustainability Area asked professor Tundisi and two other scientists to assess the study findings.
“After reviewing the results, we recommended in a report that the quality of the waters continue to be analyzed, and that the data [be] included in the Olympics Legacy [document],” said Tundisi. “These viruses can enter the respiratory system and cause serious health consequences on the athletes.”
Some time later, the Rio Olympics Committee Sustainability Area informed the scientists that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) doesn’t require tests of viral and bacteria concentrations in water quality assessments. And the matter, for them, was closed.
“We lost a real opportunity to make an advanced sanitary evaluation, not just for the Olympics, but for the city of Rio de Janeiro,” said the Feevale professor.
Mongabay asked the Rio Olympics Committee Sustainability Area why it did not comply with the recommendations of the scientists. The committee responded that: “The consulted scientists and the World Health Organization (WHO) said there isn’t a solid basis for the use of viral parameters in the appraisal of the quality of recreational waters. The guideline was to evaluate bacteriological enterococci and to intensify the monitoring frequency in the stage prior to the Games. Both recommendations have been implemented.”
At one point during his Mongabay interview, Tundisi recalled the words of Rio economist Celso Furtado: “He used to say that, in Brazil, there’s always been a confusion between development and modernization. Here the second was always chosen. However, to universalize basic sanitation is to choose for the first — and that choice is essential to a country’s health.”
Garbage, raw sewage and super bacteria have all been found in copious amounts in Rio’s rivers and estuary — waters in which 2016 Olympic Game sailors and swimmers will soon be competing. Whether those participants will be facing significant health risks, or will possibly contract and carry super bacteria back home, is unknown. What is known is that the millions of people inhabiting Rio will likely be living with the thorny problems presented by seriously polluted water for years to come.