Initiatives to improve water quality at Rio 2016 sailing venue explained

On the eve of the Aquece Rio International Sailing Regatta 2014, the first Rio 2016 test event, a group of specialists have explained the measures being undertaken to ensure that water quality in Guanabara Bay is suitable for top-level competition, as well as outlining the longer-term initiatives that will improve the bay for the city's residents.

The Rio state government's chief of staff, Leonardo Espíndola, who previously worked for the state water and sewage company, explained how eco-barriers and eco-boats had been deployed to capture and remove floating debris, rubbish dumps had been closed, bacterial treatment was being carried out and a giant 'containment belt' would be installed to protect Marina da Gloria, the Rio 2016 sailing venue.

Joining Espíndola on Wednesday night (30 July) in an online debate promoted by Rio 2016, was Tania Braga – the organising committee's sustainability, accessibility and legacy manager – and oceanographer David Zee.

Braga stressed that Guanabara Bay already has suitable conditions for holding sailing competitions. “We need people to understand that there are two different issues,” she said. “The first concerns the general environmental state of Guanabara Bay, which is directly linked to the issue of sanitation in Brazil.

“The other issue concerns the suitability of the bay for competitions. On this matter, we are monitoring a lot of data on conditions in the region that show that, where the competitions are to be held, water quality is favourable for sporting events, and this situation has been brought about gradually and consistently over the past three years.”

Guanabara Bay is divided into five major areas (see image below) defined by their environmental conditions. There is a central channel that drives the strongest interchange of water between the bay and the sea – the closer to the central channel, the better the water quality. The five test event sailing courses are in areas 1 and 2, which have the best water quality.

“Oceanographic conditions in Guanabara Bay are not uniform over the entire body of water, so if you go looking for dirty water, you will find it,” explained Zee. “But, incredible though it seems, there are many points at which the bay's capacity to recover is enormous.”

Espíndola confirmed that 50 per cent of sewage that reaches the bay via rivers is already treated and that by 2016 the state government aims to treat 80 per cent. “There is no doubt that hosting the Games has been a major factor in boosting investment and improving the bay's water quality,” he said.

“The proportion of treated sewage has risen from 10-15 per cent to 50 per cent, a threefold increase. Our target is to treat 80 per cent of the sewage reaching the bay, and we should attain this target or come very close. The bay is far from perfect. It is not as bad as many people allege, but it is not as good as it deserves to be. Sea horses have returned and that's a good sign, showing at least that we're on the right track.”

To prevent solid waste from reaching the bay, 12 eco-barriers are already in place and another seven will be introduced in 2015. “The issue of waste is a concern for the entire state government,” said Espíndola. “In addition to the ecobarriers, a tender has been launched for 10 eco-boats to capture waste that manages to cross the eco-barriers. Another important point for managing this waste is that we have put an end to the waste tips around the bay. Now, all this waste is collected and processed at waste treatment plants.”

Marina da Gloria, the venue for the upcoming test event along with the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic sailing competitions, will also be protected by a giant 'containment belt' that will keep floating rubbish at bay. “This belt will capture waste and take it to a treatment facility,” said Espíndola. “But we are also implementing bacterial treatments to minimise pollution in the marina.”

Braga stressed that education must play a key role in improving conditions in the long term. “Rather than depolluting, we need to stop polluting. To achieve a 100 per cent depollution and succeed in treating all sewage, including sewage produced by dwellings in locations where urbanisation is difficult, all our citizens will have to stop discarding waste where it does not belong. And this applies across the board, to absolutely everyone.”

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