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Rio cleaning up its act in the lead up to Olympic sailing test event

by Jeni Bone on 13 Jul 2014
Marina da Gloria, hosting the Olympic sailing events and AqueceRio, 2 to 9 August 2014. Secretaria de Estado do Ambiente do Rio
As the football World Cup wraps up in Brazil, Brazil's President says the Rio 2016 Olympic Games will be a top priority from Monday 14 July 14.

President, Ms Dilma Rousseff recently met with International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach in Brasilia as they looked ahead to the 17 days of Olympic competition, which gets underway in just over two years' time.

'Brazil and Brazilians can be proud,' Bach said after the meeting. 'I was pleased to hear the confidence President Rousseff has in the Games and what they will deliver, and it was good to hear that the Games and their legacy will be a top priority.'

He then pledged that the IOC will contribute $1.5 billion (£876 million /€1.1 billion) to the Games, to ensure the event 'leaves a huge sporting, economic and social legacy'.

Part of that legacy was a commitment to improve the water quality in Guanabara Bay and the rivers, estuaries and ocean beaches for which Rio is renowned and to which more than one million tourists flock annually.

And while the spotlight is still on the quality of the water and waterways of the host city, which will be the venues for swimming, rowing, sailing and other events, a new garbage collection method has been implemented in 16 key slum areas known as Complexo de Maré in the city’s north.

Benefitting around 130,000 residents, the new project is part of Rio’s Clean Community Project. 300 garbage containers, dubbed 'laranjões' (Big Oranges) have been placed in the communities, each one with a storage capacity of half a ton.

Part of the program is a new waste processing plant that will be under construction by August to treat and process 70% of the 150 tonnes of waste generated daily in the region. There will be twice daily garbage collection, daily street sweeping, weeding, pruning trees, mosquito/pest control, and and maintenance of streets and squares.

The next fixture on the calendar for Rio is Aquece Rio, the first of the sailing test events, to be held 2 to 9 August, in the lead up to the 2016 Olympic Games. 10 Olympic classes, 320 athletes from 34 countries will compete of Marina da Gloria, an area notorious for accumulating rubbish on its foreshores and its foul-smelling water. It’s also the official sailing venue for the 2016 Games.

Surrounded by fifteen suburbs, Guanabara Bay is the repository of dumping of raw sewage and toxic waste, as well as run off. The first task force to address the issue began in 1994, aiming for targets that were never within reach, given the complexity of the problem – a population of 6.5 million, densely packed around the mountains and the coastline, a million or so of them dwelling in favelas without proper sewerage systems, and industry that has continued to pollute unchecked.

Another of the state government initiatives is the fleet of Ecobarcos, used for the collection of floating debris. Next week, seven new vessels will join the three that have been in service since January.

'We know that the current number of Ecobarcos is insignificant and we do not expect to solve the garbage problem with this alone,' said the State Secretary for the Environment, Carlos Portinho in a recent report in the national magazine, Veja. 'But with the help of barriers in rivers and streams that empty into the Bay, we will greatly improve the standard of water quality ahead of the Games,' he says, referring to mitigation structures installed in the tributaries that feed in to Guanabara. There are 11 of these in use, and plans for another eight before 2016.

The official statement from Rio's SEA (State Department of the Environment) asserts 'The water quality of the sailing competition area of 2016 Olympic Games in Guanabara Bay (from Pão de Açucar to Rio-Niterói Bridge) is up to standards required for recreational swimming for over a year, according to the Environment State Institute (Inea) reports.'

It then refers to 'floating garbage' as the only concern 'However, with the operation of 10 Ecoboats and 11 Ecobarriers (structures installed at the rivers' mouths in order to retain the floating garbage) this issue will be solved'.

'These 11 Ecobarriers contain 4,000 tons of waste per year (330 tons/month) and the 10 Ecoboats will collect 35 tons/month. Currently, three Ecoboats are already operating (collecting 15 tons of garbage per month) and the other seven will start operation by the end of July.'

Meanwhile, two Greenpeace reports (from 2000 and 2002) on the state of Rio’s Guanabara Bay, provide evidence to cast doubt on the venue’s suitability.

A clean up of Rio de Janeiro’s waterways was one of the promises made in Brazil’s Olympic bid in 2009 but much has been made of their shortcomings, by athletes, visiting IOC members and the world’s media.

In May, Rio's state environment secretary, Carlos Francisco Portinho, has sent a letter to Brazilian sports minister Aldo Rebelo, in which he acknowledges that the water quality is so poor that even with added funds for the cleaning of the water, a significant reduction of pollution levels will take more than a decade.

Back in early June, following statements from Rio’s Mayor, Eduardo Paes saying the harbor would not be cleaned up in time for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Greenpeace released copies of the research on the bay that also affects the surrounding beaches, especially Copacabana, directly at the mouth of the bay.

The two Greenpeace reports show that the bay holds significant concentrations of both metallic contaminants, including copper, lead and zinc as well as persistent organic pollutants like PCBs, DDT and HCH. This is in addition to the millions of Litres of raw sewage, industrial and domestic waste, pouring into the Bay of which 70% is untreated. The untreated sewage and contaminants flow out the mouth of the bay directly along Copacabana and other Rio ocean side beaches.

Paes stated that he was sorry that Guanabara Bay wouldn’t be 'completely clean' for the Games, but that it would still be a long-term goal for Rio and Brazil.

In a story by Blooomberg, Paes reiterated that the sailing competition would be held in unpolluted waters, either outside the bay or at its entrance. Athletes’ health won’t be at risk from debris and sewage that elsewhere drains into the bay, which skirts Brazil’s largest tourist destination.

The latest reports obtained directly from the Secretaria de Estado do Ambiente do Rio de Janeiro this week, show slight improvement in the quality of Guanabara’s water, demonstrating dire levels of faecal bacteria in the upper reaches of the Bay - coincidentally, where many of the Olympic sailing and swimming events will be held. Marina da Gloria is on the left side of the map, the second cove in from the mouth of Guanabara, where water quality is marked BLACK, with 4,000NML per 100mL of water - way above the WHO limits deemed healthy for contact with skin in recreational water (35-200 depending on whether it's marine or fresh water.)

Back in Rio, in hard training in the lead up to AqueceRio, Martine Grael, daughter of Torben Grael, Brazil’s most lauded Olympian and world-renowned sailor, told Veja magazine her training on land has been without incident, but in the water, she encounters all sorts of debris, such as PET bottles and plastic bags swirling in the currents. 'With this absurd amount of waste, I always have an eye on the wind and the other on the garbage. I don’t let my guard down even for a second,' says the 23-year old rising star.

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