Maybe Alligators Don’t Mind Toxic Pollution

In this blog entry, Stephanie Kane, author of Where Rivers Meet the Sea, offers advice on how to clean up Guanabara Bay for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Alligators thrive along Rio de Janeiro’s coastline and even the most famous beaches are subject to swimming advisories for pollution. Although the Brazilian constitution promises the right to clean water and habitat, up and down its coast, wherever urbanized rivers meet the sea, industrial and household toxins and sewage degrade water habitats. Brazil is not unique. Worldwide, cities destroy the habitats and hinterlands upon which they depend.

That statement did not constitute news until November, when a story came across the AP newswire: Sailors, who had begun training in Guanabara Bay, became more than a little concerned about the bay’s pollution; the visuals startled them although the contaminants that frighten health professional are visible only through microscopes, especially fecal coliform bacteria that could cause dysentery and even cholera. Rio organizers pledged to clean up and monitor Copacabana, the designated swimming venue. But consider: INEA, the state environmental agency, “has classified nearly all the 13 bayside beaches it monitors as ‘terrible’ for 12 years running. . .” AECOM, the company that built London’s Olympic Park, designed the Olympic Park site for Rio 2016; although lovely, as Oliver Wainright noted,  the design does not convey the stagnation of the surrounding Jacarepaguá lagoon. The video-plan evokes AECOM’s  “water strategy” with a visual gloss of rainfall—captured, filtered, recycled and revitalized. Really?  Carlos Minc, state secretary for the environment, says for 20 years, everyone has known that the “bay is rotten.”  This time, he adds, there is something new in the government’s response.  Landfills around the bay have been closed (at least legal landfills), some industrial pollution has been “curbed” and programs to collect floating garbage and install “river treatment units (RTUs)” are in the works. Built over rivers, the RTUs are meant to filter garbage and human waste as it slides by on the way to open water. But contaminated water flows everywhere, above and below ground, through the dense, diverse human development spreading outward from the bay’s edge. How can AECOM’s site-specific water strategy possibly trigger significantly cleaner water for the Olympian swimmers and sailors in 2016  or more importantly, the people of Rio who will still be there in 2017? Will there be RTUs installed on every stream and river? Can RTUs substitute for centralized urban garbage and sewage infrastructures that retrieve and manage waste before it befouls the water?  Even if those responsible manage to keep the water looking clean enough for a few days, is that really a good enough aim? Couldn’t the “legacy” of Rio 2016 be a serious effort toward functional urban infrastructure and to implement and enforce anti-pollution laws?

Where Rivers_smThe special few apparently believe that they are protected from regional water degradation. Earthworks, filtration, labs to monitor fecal pathogens, gestures toward environmental law enforcement—this infrastructure sustains an unequal, exclusionary and paranoid security logic: urban elites wall themselves off within zones deemed free of toxins and criminals and wall out the masses who are left to struggle, to effect real change, to invent and extend sustainable habitat—or merely to withstand and survive. Although well-funded materialized illusions  may make it seem so, islands are not separate.  Rain, mist, subterranean fossil water, cycles, tides, and surges—water brings back whatever we give.

The image of Olympian athletes skimming along the murky surface, intermingling with the city’s disgusting outpourings warns of a dangerously unhealthy situation requiring either sure action or speedy retreat. Surely, the catastrophic air pollution in the 2008 Beijing Olympics was a clue: the environment cannot be ignored. Who knows? Out of pure pragmatism, the International Olympic Committee could actually transform itself into a global engine for start-up urban environmental sustainability projects that could lead to larger projects after the Olympians have gone home (like Bahia Azul, a project that cleaned up the Bay of All Saints in Salvador). Political will and imagination is what is needed here, installing a few RTUs simply won’t cut it.

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