water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

What’s Behind Rio’s Water and Wastewater Woes?

On top of the Russian doping scandal and the Zika virus fears,  the world has become shocked and worried by the water quality situation for the upcoming Summer Olympic games in Rio De Janeiro.  Numerous articles have come out with jarring statements like the following:

 The first results of the study published over a year ago showed viral levels at up to 1.7 million times what would be considered worrisome in the United States or Europe. At those concentrations, swimmers and athletes who ingest just three teaspoons of water are almost certain to be infected with viruses that can cause stomach and respiratory illnesses and more rarely heart and brain inflammation …”

There are both bacterial and viral water issues.

Recent news reports have shown the level of fecal coliform colonies to be 400 per 100 milliliters (ml.), which is more than ten times the EPA standard of 35/100 ml. for marine water swimming.  (As an other guideline, the WHO states the risk of gastrointestinal illness for swimming in water with levels of  40 /100 ml. to be approximately 1%).

On top of the bacterialogical concerns is the issue of viral pathogens.  Ninety percent (90%) of sites tested in a 16 month long study in the waters around Rio De Janeiro found the presence of viral pathogens called bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria).  Although there is no water quality standard for these pathogens, they are associated with human illnesses such as gastroenteritis.

The sources of this problem are well-known.  Rio’s Guanabara Bay is the recipient of nearly endless amounts of untreated wastewater and solid waste and local canals pass through unhygienic “favelas” (shanty towns) and industrial areas.  This problem, as WaterAid has recently rightly stated, should be put in context of a global set of urban water and wastewater challenges, and should be a call to action to improve health in Rio and similar cities across the globe.

What I would like to suggest in this post is that this problem exists and persists not just because of the real challenges of urbanization, economic development, poverty, urban planning, technology, and costs, but also due to government priorities and a lack of accountability to citizen demand to address this problem.    


For example, while early plans at the time of the awarding of the Olympic games to the city, slated for the development of seven waste treatment plants, only one was built.  Other solutions have also been suggested, including numerous dredging and waste picking/reuse projects and the development of constructed wetlands, but very little of this has materialized.  Mismanagement and bureaucratic infighting has been an issue, but so have protests in the informal settlements/favelas of the city about evictions and resettlement in advance of the Olympics.  Even more worrying is a recent Bloomberg report of the murder of Executive Coordinator of the Environmental Sanitation Program for the Guanabara Bay Area (this is something so bad that I do not care to speculate further on this).

These problems, this neglect, and conflict, rooted in class and economics, certainly existed before the run-up to the Olympic games, and aiming to paper over the extraordinary challenging economic and environmental problems in the city during the time of the Olympics is shameful.  Forced displacement is before the Olympics is unfortunately not rare, as we saw this ahead of the Beijing games.

With a backdrop full of chaos that includes a nearly impeached president, a bankrupt state government,  and most recently, protests of the Olympic Games themselves, it is critical to take Rio De Janeiro’s corruption and government accountability challenges seriously when asking what’s behind their water and wastewater problems.  It would be real progress if the spotlight on these social and environmental challenges led to serious improvements, but, in order to do so, we cannot forget that environmental problems are social and environmental problems.


water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

Corruption in the Water Sector: Do ‘Water Mafias’ exist?

Given the Hollywood treatment through the movie Chinatownwe see the California ‘water wars’ in action.  Conflicts between private landowners, municipalities, etc. exist to some extent or another, as does the general issue of sectoral (urban, agricultural, industrial) use and allocation.  While, there are varied perspectives on how this issue plays out (“whiskey is for drinking. water is for fighting over” ? ) on the large integrated water resource management (IWRM) level (‘Big Water’) [and I often defer to those with IWRM expertise, to people such as David Zetland at Aguanomics or one of my PhD supervisors (2008 Stockholm Water Prize Winner) Dr. Tony Allan],  this post focuses on what I like to call ‘Small Water’, or water at the level of the provision of and access to water.

At the level of household drinking water, water can perhaps be considered a (continuous, flowing) service if it is delivered though a utility service connection, but the reality for many in developing countries is water purchased in discrete units.  Many of us have seen the ubiquitous 20 liter jerry cans in which water is sold and re-sold in urban areas.

Since water is therefore a product, rather than a service, it is not unreasonable to look at corruption in water as a market imperfection and/or something that happens as a result of poor market regulation.  Water mafias have been documented in Nairobi, Delhi, Karachi, and many other places.  Water mafias aim to collude, control markets, restrict supply, and keep shortages high.

I will always think back to this failed water supply initiative in the Kibera informal settlements of Nairobi as a classic case of the water mafia.

“The attitude and behaviour of city godfathers [emphasis mine] was considered by many to be the greatest hindrance to private sector participation in Kibera. It has been difficult to pass decisions aimed at improving distribution networks, billing, metering and putting together a coherent and sustainable system involving the various interested parties. In addition to this, it is known that City Council workers collude with unscrupulous persons to frustrate officially recognised connections…

In Kibera, there are power structures within the community that benefit from the opportunities for rent-seeking associated with the existing water supply system [emphasis mine] . There are vested interests within the local administration, to some extent embodied in the positions of the village elders. Political parties have also contributed to the form of the current water system, and people’s positions on water issues are influenced by party affiliations….

water sellers in the settlement are often linked to these power
structures [emphasis mine]…

Since water vendors and kiosk owners are private enterprises, it can be said that there is private sector participation. However, the relationship between these private enterprises and local officials is not the kind of public-private partnership envisaged by proponents of private sector participation [emphasis mine]…

Viewed as a whole, the project did not work. The objectives of the project have clearly not been met. There has been virtually no improvement in distribution, and water prices have not fallen. What remains is a sense of failure and frustration that may well undermine future initiatives.[emphasis mine]…

It might have been better if the project had never been started. [emphasis mine]”

What does this mean in terms of practical purposes for any new water supply initiative?  The complete terrain of formal and informal participants in the supply, management, and distribution of water must be known and the government must be doing something to address any theft, control, or collusion. The Water Integrity Network (WIN) is a great resource for further reading in this area.