All eyes are on Brazil as the nation finalizes preparations for the Olympic Games while attempting to solve a decades-long water pollution crisis. According to 2016 statistics, only 65 percent of sewage was treated before reaching Rio de Janeiro’s waters; a number far behind the 80 percent officials pledged when Brazil first received the Olympic bid.
Efforts have been made to clean the waters near the Olympic stadium, but local waters remain as polluted as before.
“We’ve just been forgotten,” says Irenaldo Honorio da Silva during an interview with The Atlantic Magazine. A resident of Rio de Janeiro, Da Silva lives in one of 1000 favelas — informal housing structures that hold more than 1.5 million people. The low-income inhabitants of these favelas lack adequate sanitation systems, a problem faced by 30 percent of the Rio population.
“About three times a week, sewage overflows and trickles down the streets past the houses” Da Silva explains. When it rains, water pipes crack open and streets are flooded with filthy water.
Those who come into contact with contaminated water risk contracting diseases like hepatitis, worms, diarrhea and tetanus. More than 400,000 Brazilians were hospitalized in 2011 for illnesses related to the poor water quality in Brazil.
Olympians are bracing themselves for venues riddled with disease-causing viruses, which, according to the Associated Press (AP), “measured up to 1.7 million times the level of what would be considered hazardous on a Southern California beach.” The AP also found that those who ingest as little as three teaspoons worth of infected water have a 99 percent chance of infection.
Nevertheless, the risks for international athletes begin and end with the Olympic Games; Brazilians deal with these problems for life. Water quality is thus a critical issue that needs to be addressed.
Every year 217,000 workers miss an average of 17 hours of work due to gastrointestinal issues; infections caused by poor sanitation. Many children miss school for the same reason.
In fact, studies from institutions like the University of Chicago show that children with access to proper sanitation have higher educational attainment rates than those without. Furthermore, Trata Brasil, an organization dedicated to bringing universal sanitation to Brazil, recently revealed that a lack of proper sewage disposal was linked to lower life expectancies for citizens.
“The problems in [a favela] may be due in part to a lack of consciousness from its own people,” Marcello Farias notes during an interview with Huck Magazine in Rocihna, his hometown and one of the largest favelas in Rio. The majority of Brazilians cite health, security and drugs as the nation’s most pressing issues.
Diogo Rodrigues, a fellow Rocihna native, explains in the same interview that “if the government doesn’t do anything, [we] are the ones that have to be in charge.” He has worked with other favela residents to create different solutions to the water pollution crisis.
For example, the Surfer’s Association in Rodrigues’ hometown not only teaches local children how to surf but also offers environmental lectures and beach clean-ups. Meu Rio, an advocacy organization, holds demonstrations to raise awareness. In 2014, members sat on toilets on Guanabara Bay beaches every weekend for three months to shed light on the problem with water quality in brazil.
However, many view cooperation between the government, local authorities and civilians as the answer to improving water quality in Brazil.
Government officials announced that they plan to install eight sanitation plants in Olympic venues and upgrade favela water systems. Research from the University of São Paulo shows that investing in sanitation has other beneficial effects — it is more effective at alleviating poverty than spending on education, social security or welfare.
Change often occurs slowly. However, David Barbosa, a professional bodyboarder from Rocihna, encourages everyone to “keep up the momentum.”
“We may not always succeed, but we ‘gotta’ keep trying.”
– Ashley Leon