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Rio’s Water Pollution: Lots of Problems, Few Solutions

13 Jan, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
International-Level Regulatory Bodies Stepping Away from Dicey Political Situation

How dirty is the water in Rio? Dirty enough that Olympic sailors are considering wearing plastic coveralls and surgical masks to protect themselves from pathogens.

And that’s just the beginning.

With months to go until the Olympic flame arrives in Brazil, water tests are giving the worst possible news, according to an article in the Indy Star:  The Associated Press is reporting that tests it commissioned of the Rio Olympic waters in July found they are more widely contaminated by sewage than previously known. A person exposed to this water could develop a host of debilitating flu-like symptoms, including vomiting, diarrhea and fever.

In fact, Olympic sailor Eric Heil of Germany (he who pioneered the idea of the plastic jumpsuit) has already been treated for MRSA as a result of his exposure to the water during a test event.

“Sailors, rowers, canoeists and open-water swimmers, beware,” notes the Indy Star article. “Only a few of you will win medals, but it’s possible that by simply competing you will leave Brazil having been exposed to viruses and bacteria. Congratulations and have a nice time.”

Some organizations are taking a proactive stance. The Singapore Sailing Federation just instituted extra precautions for athletes who are competing on the waters of Guanabara Bay, according to Inside the Games. Athletes will receive injections of antibiotics beforehand and will be expected to wash with antibacterial soap after competing. Heil says he’ll show up just before sailing events begin so that any disease that manifests does so on his way home from the Games, and will not distract him from competition.

Sailors are routinely drenched during competitive events and have to jump into the water to deal with the occasional capsized boat; swimmers, triathletes and others, obviously, are totally submerged. Another worry is the wildlife; some bodies of water are known to be infested with crocodiles.

The water quality, or more accurately, the lack thereof, represents another broken promise in the Olympic chain, and is seen as symbolic of the desperate fight of countries to bring home the Games.

The Indy Star noted, “The city won the right to host the Olympics at least in part due to a pledge to clean up its waterways by improving sanitation. Rio took this one right out of the Olympic promises playbook. Beijing won the right to host the 2008 Olympics by saying it would work to clean up its air pollution and do a better job on human rights. (It barely could have been doing a worse job on human rights.)”

In 2014, when the nation was gearing up for the World Cup, the New York Times writers who were in the area for those games noted Rio was far from the Olympic ideal. Though international officials complained that Brazil had had almost five years since winning its Olympic bid to make headway, some of the delays at that point stemmed from chronic problems the nation has long fought.

Well-financed efforts to clean up the bay have proved disappointing for decades, undercut by mismanagement and allegations of corruption. The political rivalries among local, state and federal layers of government have led to infighting, including an impasse over who should pay for certain Olympic projects. Protests over forced evictions to make way for the Olympics have slowed construction.

Pollution, meanwhile, continued to go untreated. And at the moment, things look even worse, with an outbreak of dengue fever caused by mosquitoes. And that too goes back to problems inherent in the country's sanitation. Officials supervising the construction of the Commonwealth Games Village were fined a year prior to the competition for letting water stagnate at its building site, increasing the prospect of mosquitoes breeding.

Unfortunately, cleanups became a a political football. 10 News Tampa Bay reported that since the AP’s July revelation regarding water contamination, Olympic and World Health Organization officials have flip-flopped over whether they would carry out their own viral testing.

The WHO, which acts in an advisory role to the IOC, took four different positions on whether or not viral testing should be carried out between July and mid-October. In an Oct. 24 email, the WHO told the AP that it didn't feel Olympic officials needed to conduct "routine" viral testing, but added that it was not "unconcerned with viral pathogens in water" and that water quality and monitoring would be discussed in Brazil once again in late November.

There has been no definitive word since that time.

Water testing is necessary for any events that use open water as part of a venue; these include triathlons, open water swims and so forth. It isn’t unheard-of for domestic events to have to be cancelled or changed because of water testing results that occur because of heavy rains, runoff or other circumstances beyond event owners’ control. However, reputable event owners and managers generally work with water chemistry firms on an ongoing basis to try to stay on top of water conditions.

The unhealthy state of Rio’s waterways could not be announced at a worse time. Inside The Games has reported the state has declared a health sector state of emergency after governor Luiz Fernando Pezão signed a measure to provide additional support to hospitals across the state. The measure signed by Pezão and Alberto Beltrame, secretary of healthcare, came after the state ran out of funds to maintain the operation of its public health system, with several hospitals and outpatient facilities being forced to close. The state of emergency is set to last until June, just two months ahead of the start of the Olympic Games.

In addition, rising tensions exploded into violent protests over the weekend as residents of multiple cities in Brazil, including Rio, clashed with officials over the rising prices of public transit. Inside The Games reported that protests began in the center of the city, close to the Maracanã Stadium where the opening and closing ceremonies are due to take place.

Seventeen people were arrested in a 3,000-person protest in São Paulo, meanwhile, where masked protesters threw rocks at police, who used tear gas, stun grenades and pepper spray to defend themselves. More peaceful protests took place in many other cities, including Belo Horizonte, which, like São Paulo, will provide venues for Olympic soccer matches.

This comes after reports that disgruntled former workers were responsible for a small fire which caused minor damage to office space close to the Olympic Tennis Center in the Barra de Tijuca Olympic Park.

Many people believe the Olympics is an unaffordable luxury given the problems in Brazil, and more demonstrations are reportedly planned later in the  week.

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