Head of Rio’s wa­ter util­ity sees ‘prob­lems’ in Olympic bay


The head of Rio de Janeiro’s wa­ter util­ity has ac­knowl­edged “prob­lems” with the city’s sewage- filled Gua­n­abara Bay but in­sisted the Olympic city will even­tu­ally reach its goal of col­lect­ing and treat­ing all the waste cur­rently dumped into the wa­ter­way.

Speak­ing late Wed­nes­day in an in­ter­view with The As­so­ci­ated Press, Jorge Bri­ard, pres­i­dent of Rio’s Cedae util­ity, added his voice to the cho­rus of of­fi­cials say­ing it will be im­pos­si­ble to make good on the Olympic pledge of col­lect­ing 80 per­cent of sewage in com­mu­ni­ties that ring the bay be­fore Olympic sail­ing events are held there next year.

How­ever he in­sisted that Rio has been mak­ing progress in solv­ing its sew­er­age woes and pledged that sewage col­lec­tion and treat­ment around the bay would be “much bet­ter” by the Games, less than one year away.

“Ob­vi­ously, I’m not crazy enough to say that there aren’t prob­lems in the Gua­n­abara Bay,” he said. “There are many prob­lems.”

He added that the ini­tia­tives aimed at meet­ing Rio’s Olympic tar­gets had not taken place with the “speed we imag­ined six years ago,” when Rio won its bid for the 2016 games.

A ma­jor cleanup of the city’s blighted wa­ter­ways was meant to be one of the games’ most en­dur­ing lega­cies and was a key selling for the city’s win­ning bid, and the fail­ure to come any­where near those prom­ises has be­come a ma­jor headache for author­i­ties here be­fore the start of the Aug. 5-21, 2016, event.

Bri­ard down­played a July 30 re­port by the AP show­ing alarm­ingly high lev­els of viruses and, in some cases, bac­te­ria from hu­man sewage in all of Rio’s Olympic and Par­a­lympic wa­ter venues, in­clud­ing the bay, the Ro­drigo de Fre­itas Lake, where row­ing and ca­noe­ing com­pe­ti­tions are to take place, and Copaca­bana Beach, where the triathlon and marathon swimming events are to be staged.

Based on five months of test­ing by a top Brazil­ian vi­rol­o­gist, the re­port in­cluded an ex­pert’s risk as­sess­ment say­ing that with such high vi­ral lev­els, it was an al­most cer­tain ath­letes who come into con­tact with even small amounts of the sewage- blighted wa­ters would be in­fected by viruses. That doesn’t au­to­mat­i­cally mean an ath­lete would fall ill — that de­pends on nu­mer­ous fac­tors, in­clud­ing their im­mune sys­tem.

‘Com­pletely pro­tected’

Bri­ard in­sisted the wa­ter­ways were safe for ath­letes and said that the Olympic sail­ing lanes in the bay are “com­pletely pro­tected from any prob­lem” re­lated to the flow of raw sewage into the many parts of the bay. Although the AP in­ves­ti­ga­tion found the Ro­drigo de Fre­itas Lake to be among the most pol­luted for Olympic sites, Bri­ard said he was “sur­prised” to hear of high lev­els of pol­lu­tants there.

Braird, a 51-year-old engi­neer who hails from the Pa­queta Is­land deep within the Gua­n­abara Bay and has worked at Cedae for more than 15 years, also ex­pressed sur­prise when asked about ill­nesses re­sult­ing from the pathogens lurk­ing in Rio’s pol­luted wa­ter­ways.

“We were never no­ti­fied by the state health sec­re­tar­iat of any spike in public clin­ics of any wa­ter-borne ill­ness,” he said.

But the head of an as­so­ci­a­tion rep­re­sent­ing Rio’s gas­troen­terol­o­gists, Dr. Luiz Abra­hao, told the AP that the city re­cently ex­pe­ri­enced “sev­eral spikes in cases of se­vere di­ar­rhea, par­tic­u­larly of vi­ral ori­gin.” The latest spikes here date to early this year and late last year, dur­ing the south­ern hemi­sphere sum­mer, Abra­hao said, adding that such cases are vastly un­der­re­ported.

“The pa­tients who end up seek­ing us out are those who have very per­sis­tent or ex­treme cases,” he said. “Acute di­ar­rhea is a com­mon thing (in Rio), some­thing that we ex­pe­ri­ence in our day-to­day lives.”

Bri­ard said Cedae was work­ing swiftly to uni­ver­sal­ize sewage col­lec­tion and treat­ment here, in­sist­ing that the per­cent­age of sewage treat­ment in the com­mu­ni­ties ring­ing the bay had risen from 11 per­cent in 2007 — when only three treat­ment plants were op­er­a­tional — to around 51 per­cent to­day, with six plants now work­ing at var­i­ous ca­pac­i­ties.

He said the dou­bling of ca­pac­ity at the Ale­gria plant, which cur­rently only op­er­ates at 50 per­cent ca­pac­ity, and the en­ter­ing into ser­vice of a so-called River Treat­ment Unit over the heav­ily con­tam­i­nated Iraja River in the com­ing months would help boost treat­ment even higher.

“It’s a non-stop ef­fort to raise the per­cent­age of sewage treat­ment,” he said. “Our ob­jec­tive is, fol­low­ing the Olympics, to con­tinue with these pro­grams un­til we have col­lec­tion and treat­ment in 100 per­cent of the area around the Gua­n­abara Bay.”

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