Ten years after summit, Rio bay still stinks

When world leaders were flying into Rio for the 1992 Earth Summit, their nostrils were assailed by a particularly nasty example of the ills they were here to debate: the dense, putrid stench of Guanabara Bay.

Ten years later, after a huge internationally funded cleanup, and a week before another Earth Summit opens in Johannesburg, one thing hasn’t changed.

Guanabara Bay still stinks.

The 1992 summit cast such a spotlight on the bay that environmentalists were sure salvation was at hand. Yet “Here we are, 10 years later, with lots of money spent and very little to show for it,” said Rogerio Rocco, coordinator of the Blue Wave Coalition, an environmental group.

The Inter-American Development Bank and Japan’s Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund have poured nearly $800-million into cleaning up the bay. But a recent audit by the Japanese fund found the program ineffective and way behind schedule.

Each day, some 470 tons of raw sewage are dumped in the bay, along with about 10 tons of solid garbage, five tons of oil and an unknown quantity of industrial waste.
In four of eight areas tested, sewage had almost entirely replaced sea water.

“If everything worked like it was supposed to, the whole thing could be cleaned up in 20 years, but the way it’s going it will take 30 or 40,” said Rocco.

The 376-square-kilometre bay has been identified with this city ever since explorer Gaspar de Lemos sailed in on January 1, 1502, mistook it for the mouth of a huge river and named the spot Rio de Janeiro, Portuguese for River of January.

For centuries, its pristine waters attracted vacationers and beachgoers. The Portuguese royal family had a bathhouse there, and bay islands were coveted for weekend and summer homes. Then, in 1961, Brazilian oil giant Petrobras built a refinery on the bay. Three years later the shrimp catch was down 40%, said Lise Sedrez, a student of the bay’s environmental history.

Within a decade, Sedrez said, Guanabara was so polluted that few people swam there.

The first phase of the cleanup began in 1993. A 10-year plan called for building two new sewage treatment plants, improving existing ones and installing over 900 000 metres of sewers in communities around the bay.

Once in place, the theory went, this system would be able to treat 55% of all sewage flowing into Guanabara.

Today, of the bay’s eight sewage treatment plants, only three are fully operational. The others work intermittently, or not at all. One plant was inaugurated twice, by two different governors, but still isn’t connected to a sewerage line.

“They inaugurate sewage treatment plants, but they don’t build the systems to bring the sewage to them,” complains State Environment Secretary Liszt Vieira.

Rio de Janeiro state’s Sanitation Secretary, Agostinho Guerreiro, admits that only about 15% of the sewage that spills into the bay each day is treated. But he blames past administrations. Yet simply building sewers is not the answer. Many of the communities along the bay’s 132-kilometre shoreline and the 35 small rivers that feed it are stilt-house shantytowns, not easily equipped with sewers.

Sewage is not the only problem. Two years ago, a ruptured pipeline at a Petrobras refinery spilled at least 1,3-million litres of crude into the bay, killing birds and fish and devastating environmentally sensitive mangrove swamps.

Elmo Amador, coordinator of the environmental group Bay Alive, says state money that should have gone toward cleaning up Guanabara Bay was instead spent on vast salt-water swimming pools to score points with voters.

Today, as in 1992, the smell is noticeable from the moment one leaves the airport.

Yet hundreds of fishermen still eke out a living in the bay, and scientists say most of its fish can be eaten safely.

“We get by any way we can,” fisherman Cicero Gueiros said. “The pollution is terrible. Twenty years ago, you’d see dolphins all the time. Now they’re a rare sight.” - Sapa-AP

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