By Nicole Graham, Humanitas Global
The Summer 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro have just concluded, but Rio’s Olympic-sized water issues are not packing up and leaving. The persistent complaint around unsafe water conditions for athletes and spectators shall continue to plague the citizens of Brazil and the waters of Rio long after the tourists have departed.
According to a sixteen-month long study commissioned by the Associated Press, 1,400 athletes faced serious exposure to health risks during the games due to contact with Rio’s contaminated water. The report stated that Olympic and Paralympic venues contained consistently high levels of viruses and bacteria, which could cause everything from stomach and respiratory illness to heart and brain inflammation. AP reported that athletes would need to ingest only three teaspoons of water to be at extreme risk for adverse effects.
For decades, governors of Rio have promised to clean up the waters and have repeatedly violated the agreed upon timelines. In the 2009 Olympic bid document, Brazilian authorities again pledged to clean up waterways and maintain healthy environments, and again failed to follow-through on the commitment.
At the beginning of the year, Rio’s State Environment Secretary induced a water quality panic by announcing that the Guanabara Bay would not reach the goal of an 80 percent improvement in cleanliness by the time the Olympic torch reached Rio. With a government well-known for its financial struggles, public officials were quick to point out that targets would not be met due to the instability the country has faced in recent months.
Rio treats approximately 40 percent of its sewage while the remainder is disposed of in the waterways surrounding the city. The World Health Organization (WHO) water tests prior to the Olympics indicated a strong presence of faecal bacteria and viruses. The international body recommended that contamination should be addressed first and foremost at the source, with water quality testing as a secondary priority. Unsurprisingly, diseases related to compromised water are the second leading cause of illness in Brazil for children under five years old.
So what happens when the Olympic Villages are abandoned, repurposed and Brazil’s 300,000-500,000 tourists and spectators return home? Despite the global focus on dire water conditions, Rio remains trapped in a water crisis. Water and sanitation issues are hardly unique to Brazil though. A staggering 2.5 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation globally, and over 783 million people cannot regularly access clean drinking water. Many other countries struggle just as much as Brazil but their issues are not in the limelight and fail to grip the public’s attention.
The current drought in the Horn of Africa has had devastating repercussions, and most of Ethiopia’s population of 99 million people has been food insecure and suffering from water-related diseases for the last twenty years. Surface water sources have dried up, forcing people to rely on stagnant water sources which easily become a breeding ground for everything from bacteria to mosquitoes. There is not enough water to be used for bathing, cooking and drinking, so the citizens are forced to use water only when they must, with hygiene practices rarely observed to conserve water.
Both rural and urban areas of Bangladesh suffer from lack of potable drinking water, and only 40 percent of people have sufficient sanitation services. The urban population of the country is increasing at an alarming rate, with rural dwellers seeking higher wages and improved livelihoods in cities. As a result many are forced to live in slum conditions, unable to afford more sustainable living environments and the country unable to match the pace of urbanization. Due to the lack of infrastructure and the overwhelming number of people living in small areas, the residents face low-quality drinking water and poor waste disposal. In rural areas, the ground water contains high levels of arsenic. With few other options, rural inhabitants are compelled to use this drinking water that can cause many health problems including cancer and skin disorders.
Only 25 percent of all Haitians have access to a sanitary toilet, and 40 percent do not have access to acceptable drinking water. With most water treatment plants not in operation, Haiti has very few options for the collection and treatment of sewage. Diseases are easily spread, especially cholera, typhoid and chronic diarrhea. Combined, these water-borne illnesses result in more than half of all deaths in Haiti each year.
Small-scale solutions, such as the Lifestraw and Solarball, aid in purifying water for personal use, yet these inventions do not address large-scale water contamination as seen in Rio. The Seabin, an automated bucket that collects trash, oil and detergents in oceans has made waves recently, demonstrating in a successful online video campaign how effectively the product can clean the waters. Though solutions exist to clean up water pollution and reduce contamination, the problem lies at the source and cause of pollution. In Indonesia for example, some cities and towns lack basic trash collection infrastructure. As a result, individuals get rid of waste in the surrounding area, degrading the local water quality and sanitation conditions, with the waste eventually making its’ way to the sea.
With any luck, the media frenzy focused on the water conditions in Rio can be translated into actionable dialogue. Brazil is far from the world’s only country suffering WASH issues, and with climate change exacerbating conditions, afflicted countries will need assistance and an altered strategy to combat unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and the causes encouraging such conditions.