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.