RIO DE JANEIRO — 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 per cent 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.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach responded to a question at a news conference in Beijing on Friday about Rio's chances of fixing the problem by saying: "In principal, the IOC will follow the guidelines of the WHO."
"This has been done in the past and will be done in the future, in order to have safe conditions for athletes at the games," Bach said.
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.
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-to-day 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 per cent in 2007 — when only three treatment plants were operational — to around 51 per cent 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 per cent 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 per cent of the area around the Guanabara Bay."
To see the AP's summary findings and methodology of its study on Rio's water quality: http://apne.ws/1IFxS9h
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Jenny Barchfield, The Associated Press