Guanabara Bay is the largest bay in the world by water volume and is a popular place for touring boats to sail. The bay commands breathtaking views of Sugar Loaf Mountain and will be the home for sailing events at the Olympic Games starting shortly in Brazil.
As well as Rio, there are several major ports in the Bay area which bring their own environmental costs to the area with major oil spillages that have affected the area for many years (the last one being in 2000 and which is still being cleaned up). The Bay once held a health ecosystem, large fishing stock and clean beaches, but deforestation and urban development have left the area littered with debris.
The release of raw sewage remains a major pollution problem for Guanabara’s water. Most of the 55 rivers that flow into the Bay have been declared ‘dead’ by scientists. Tonnes of stinking sewage from Rio’s millions of residents pour into the Bay untreated every day.
As part of the latest ‘Clean Guanabara’ plan announced by the government, when planning for the 2016 Olympics, seven new sewage treatment plants were promised. Disappointingly though, only one plant is in operation. Meanwhile, sports people training for the Rio Olympic sailing events increasingly report falling ill after capsizing their boats here. International Olympic sailing competitors have complained, during recent training, of falling ill after swallowing some of the polluted waters whilst trying to avoid plastic debris and dead animals floating in the waters. As well as these health hazards, discarded plastic bags can wrap themselves around the boats’ rudders which can be a setback in a sport where speed is of the essence.
Below is the official view of the Environment Secretary for Rio State – Andre Correa from an interview given on June 29th:
Q: Can you swim in the bay?
A: It depends on the location. There are places where you can swim. I swam in the area where the sailing will be. There was major work, a 1.2-billion-reais project ($356 million) but it’s not obvious to ordinary people. I think we have to take small steps. Knowing the financial difficulties of Brazil, whoever said the bay will be clean in less than 20, 25 years is lying.
Q: The pollution of Guanabara Bay has been on the official agenda since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. What’s gone wrong?
A: There was a major error in strategy and communication. There was an investment of about 2.5 billion reais ($741 million) and the local people were told that with this funding, the bay would be clean. Those who understand this issue know that this isn’t enough funding to overcome the challenges. We will have a clean bay the day the 15 municipalities bordering it have sewage treatment. Studies show that’s going to require 15 billion reais ($4.4 billion), and we’re far from that goal. Brazil is having a financial crisis and Rio state doesn’t have the money. That’s why the government decided to seek help from the private sector.
Q: The Baia Viva environmental activist group says the pollution in the bay can cause disease. Should athletes be worried?
A: The bay is not a homogeneous body of water, it has various problems. But the water quality at the entrance of the bay, where the sailing competitions will be held, meets international standards. You can swim there. Water flows in from the sea. The major challenge as concerns the Olympics is floating waste. It’s a major problem that we face. The most important thing — more important than removing waste — is preventing it from getting there. We have installed 15 barriers and there will be 17 in place during the Games, eliminating 280 tons of waste per month. But we need people to realize that when they throw a plastic bottle on the ground, the rain will carry it to the bay and no government or investment can combat that. Environmental education is crucial.
Q: How much of the bay has been decontaminated? The authorities have said they would clean up 80 percent of the pollution, but on Tuesday the mayor said it would be 60 percent. Which is correct?
A: There was a big misunderstanding, resulting in a deficit in credibility. There was talk about objectives but there was no financial support for attaining them. I will not cite any specific rate. It is necessary that the regional government and the people refer to the same rate. In cooperation with the Inter-American Development Bank and researchers, we are in the process of launching a digital platform so everyone can follow in real time what’s being done with the investments in the bay.
Q: Who’s responsible?
A: Brazil has a federal system. Various agencies are involved in managing the bay. Municipalities deal with waste. The Navy, a federal agency, is responsible for surface pollution. I’m responsible for industrial waste. We need a model to work in a coordinated manner in the bay.