Promises were made when the Rio won the Olympics bid in 2007 that the filthy Guanabara bay would be cleaned, that raw sewage would no longer flow into the bay, and certainly that the stench of the city would no longer permeate even into the airports. But with only 3 weeks until the Olympics, this is far from the truth. Nine years has passed since the bid, and while Rio residents have been hired to rake up the sludge and trash that washes onto the bay beaches, two weeks ago body parts were found floating onto the sand on Copacabana beach–exactly where the volleyball games are to be held.
“Rio won the right to host the Olympics based on a lengthy bid document that promised to clean up the city’s scenic waterways by improving sewage sanitation, a pledge that was intended to be one of the event’s biggest legacies. Brazilian officials now acknowledge that won’t happen.” –ESPN
It’s More than Dirty Water
This isn’t a case of “Ew, the water looks dirty.” This is an environmental disaster. Such magnitude of unsafe water shouldn’t be occurring anywhere–let alone where the Olympics are being held. My perspective is that if you can’t supply your own residents with a healthy environment, with clean water, with body-parts-free beaches, then you certainly shouldn’t be investing in creating buildings and arenas that will be used sparingly after. Clean water is a human right–and Rio residents simply do not have it. While Rio has spent nearly 10 billion dollars investing in creating a place to hold the Olympic games, very little of the budget has gone to water safety. (Much of it has been spent building walls so that visitors do not see the poorer sections of the town, the places that have no clean running water and no basic sewage.) The New York Times stated in an article today, “Doctors in Rio’s favelas, or poor neighborhoods, calculate that up to 40 percent of their patients’ illnesses result from contact with untreated sewage.” These people don’t have the option to simply leave and return to their countries with clean water; they live there.
With the Olympics starting in a short three weeks, you’d think that the majority of the media would be covering who recently made it onto various Olympic teams, who’s projected to win gold medals, and which events should be the closest in competition to watch. However, most of the non-sponsored media is actually concentrating on the environmental troubles. Raw un-treated sewage streams directly into the Ocean from Rio. There is a multitude of illegal dumping of trash, so much so that it’s incredibly common for things such as old furniture to plastic bags to be strewn across Guanabara Bay.
Not the Bacteria on the Kitchen Counter
Recent studies have shown that the amount of bacteria in the bay is 1.7 million times that of acceptable limits. The super bacteria known as Klebsiella Pneumoniae Carbapenemase (KPC) has been shown to be in the water that marathon swimmers will be swimming in: a bacteria initially found in untreated hospital waste water. The bacteria has quickly spread through the beaches and lagoons. KPC causes a multitude of infections, and is incredibly difficult to treat due to limited antibiotic options.
“The super bacteria can cause gastrointestinal, pulmonary and bloodstream infections.” -TechTimes
What are the Athletes to do?
In August of last year, Olympic sailor Erik Heil contracted the flesh-eating bacteria MRSA while sailing in Rio for an Olympic test event, but this isn’t letting him sway his decision to participate this upcoming August. With the amount of work these athletes put forward, many are willing to take as many precautions as possible while still competing. (Many of the athletes that have dropped out are citing Zika virus, not the water issues.) Instead of focusing on improving the water, outside companies have been focusing on creating specialized antimicrobial suits to combat the bacteria the rowers will be coming into contact with. The suits aren’t head-to-toe, so the athletes are still going to be coming into contact with garbage, raw sewage, and unsafe levels of bacteria. For rowers and sailors, oars and boats will be bleached after each training session and competition, with all clothing laundered at high enough temperatures to kill microbes.
“Athletes will get multiple vaccinations, douse themselves with hand sanitizer, shower as quickly as they can after racing and resort to home remedies from Listerine to Jagermeister, but no one can guarantee what precautions might be effective.” –ESPN
What are Tourists doing?
One of the major reasons that Rio de Janiero wanted the Olympics bid so badly is that they wanted to show the strides they’ve made as a developing country. The Olympic games has the potential to bring in billions of dollars to an area–not just immediately, but as a tourist destination for years after. The issue with the unsafe water though doesn’t just affect the athletes–the beaches where visitors are viewing the sailing events have tested positive for KPC (90% of the samples tested had noticeable amounts of the bacteria.) Tourists are tentative to visit these areas, with only 70% of Olympic tickets sold as of July, 7th. Those attending the Olympics will undoubtedly purchase their water, foregoing tap water for sealed bottles. On top of this, if the issues of unsafe water are weighty on the visitors minds, they’re unlikely to return, leaving the country where it was before they built the massive arenas.
The Real Victims are the Residents of Rio
The reality is this isn’t an ideal place for the Olympics. Not yet. With only 3 weeks left though, there’s little that can be done. Raw sewage, bacteria, dangerous trash are polluting the beaches, bays, and lagoons of Rio de Janiero. And on Monday, August 22nd, when the Summer Olympic games are over and tourists are scrambling back to their home countries to seek clean water and treatment for infections, the residents of Rio remain. The Real Victims. And as is so often the fact, the media will begin coverage of other topics and areas, forgetting about Rio and their tragic water situation. Water Safety isn’t just about maintaining a facade for the Olympics. It’s about stopping the daily 170 million gallons of untreated sewage from flowing into the bay. It’s about providing clean, drinkable water to these residents long-term. Navigating around plastic bags with swimming isn’t normal, and it’s not right. And Rio residents shouldn’t have to think it is.