Brazil: 100th plan to clean up Rio Bay

Sitting under an umbrella, a cold beer in hand, with a breathtaking view of Sugarloaf in Rio de Janeiro, Edson Rocha has everything to spend an idyllic day on the beach.

With one detail: the water in Guanabara Bay, with its foul-smelling and polluted sewers, does not at all make you want to swim.

“If you go swimming, you should immediately take a shower and dry off within 10 minutes,” said a 46-year-old Brazilian who works in the oil industry.

A few meters away, an underground river dumps sewage into the sea, on the beautiful Flamengo beach, not far from the center of Rio.

The scenery is breathtaking, but bathers prefer less polluted beaches overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, such as Copacabana, a huge bay with 12.5 million inhabitants and where 54.3% of wastewater is not treated.

After decades of empty promises, Rio state officials say they have finally found a solution to clean up the bay.

Cedae’s water treatment plant was privatized last year.

Aguas do Rio, which won the auction, has pledged to invest 2.7 billion reais (about 520 million euros) over five years to upgrade the treatment plant and connect it to the sewer to prevent uncontrolled wastewater discharge.

Plastic waste in a river flowing into Guanabara Bay on March 20, 2022 in Rio de Janeiro (AFP – André BORGES)

The Aegea group’s subsidiary, Aguas do Rio, has planned to allocate a total of 24.4 billion reais (approximately 4.7 billion euros) over a 35-year concession to achieve 90% wastewater treatment.

“When our program is launched, I am sure that people will swim in the bay again,” Alexandre Bianchini, head of Aguas do Río, told AFP.

– Olympic disappointment –

But few Rio residents share his optimism.

In 1994, the local authorities had already launched a major program to clean up the bay with the help of international funds, 1.1 billion euros were invested in the treatment plant, but a large number of houses were not connected to the sewer.

Polluted waters of the river flowing into the Gulf of Guanabara, March 20, 2022 in Rio de Janeiro (AFP - André BORGES)
Polluted waters of the river flowing into the Gulf of Guanabara, March 20, 2022 in Rio de Janeiro (AFP – André BORGES)

In 2009, when Rio secured the organization of the 2016 Olympic Games, government officials promised that Guanabara Bay would be clean by then.

But embarrassing photos of plastic bags floating around the venue have been released to media around the world.

And the state of Rio, bankrupt, was never able to implement its program to treat 80% of wastewater.

“Guanabara Bay has become a graveyard for projects that never saw the light of day,” lamented Sergio Ricardo, co-founder of environmental NGO Baia Viva.

– Fishermen without fish –

Gilsini Gomez, a 61-year-old fisherman, angrily points to two plastic bottles pulled from the murky, stinking waters of a bay in Duque de Caxias, Rio’s northern suburbs.

“Is this what I’m going to feed my family?” asks the president of the fishermen’s association.

Fisherman Gilchini Gomes collects recyclable waste from a river that flows into Guanabara Bay on March 20, 2022 in Rio de Janeiro (AFP - André BORGES)
Fisherman Gilchini Gomes collects recyclable waste from a river that flows into Guanabara Bay on March 20, 2022 in Rio de Janeiro (AFP – André BORGES)

He lives near Jardim Gramacho, which has long been the largest uncontrolled landfill in Latin America. It was officially closed in 2012, but more have popped up in the neighborhood, and mountains of rotting trash are polluting the nearby bay.

Local associations also accuse a chemical company and refinery of dumping toxic waste in this part of the bay.

A father of four, Mr. Gomes had to become a recyclable waste collector, like most other fishermen in the area.

Biologist Mario Moscatelli, who leads the mangrove transplant program, is among the waste that will end up in Guanabara Bay on March 18, 2022 in Rio de Janeiro. (AFP - Carl DE SOUZA)
Biologist Mario Moscatelli, who leads the mangrove transplant program, is among the waste that will end up in Guanabara Bay on March 18, 2022 in Rio de Janeiro. (AFP – Carl DE SOUZA)

Biologist Mario Moscatelli, who leads a program to replant mangroves around an old landfill, sees Guanabara Bay as a symbol of how Brazil handles environmental issues.

“This catastrophe is caused by unplanned urbanization, swarming favelas with no housing policy for the poor and no universal access to sewerage,” he explains, remaining hopeful of a solution with the privatization of Rio’s water company.

“We gave the state 50 years to mess everything up, why not give this company five years?” he concludes.

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