Rio’s bay could be less dirty, shortly

No more Cedae?

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Protesters this past June

Experience teaches that skepticism is the most appropriate attitude, so let’s cultivate it.

And now for some good news: there’s a possibility that we’ll at last have significantly cleaner water in metropolitan Rio de Janeiro, in just a few years.

Para A baía pode ficar menos suja, em pouco tempo, clique aqui

Before taking this further, it’s worth posing the age-old question: what ever happened to the US$1 billion meant to clean up Guanabara Bay in the 1990s? Whose pockets did it end up in?

“I didn’t work on the Guanabara Bay De-Pollution Program (PDBG is the Portuguese acronym) so I don’t know the details, but you can infer that the amount was ten percent of what was actually needed,” Luiz Firmino Martins Pereira, Metropolitan Management Executive Group Superintendent, explained to RioReal. Early this month, he gave a surprising interview to the blog. “It was very little compared to the size of the problem.”

He says this is one of the reasons why we ended up with treatment stations and no sewage collection system. The funds weren’t enough; the dream was huge. Usually, sewage collection pipes account for 70% of the cost of a sanitation system. Needed investment just wasn’t there.

Neither Cedae, Rio state’s water and sewage company, nor the state itself, was prepared to take on debt for the task. The sewage rate charged to consumers wouldn’t pay the bill, either.

For decades, the idea was to close the gap between our reality and that of more advanced metropolises. Once flushed, the sewage would be collected, treated and returned to the environment. Officials planned to install an ideal collection and treatment system, which would carry sewage away in pipes separate from surface runoff pipes.

The ideal system — which in many first world cities doesn’t exist  — currently demands, according to Firmino, about R$1.800 (US$ 517 at today’s exchange rate) per inhabitant. Multiply that by the 12 million metropolitan population and you rack up R$ 21,6 billion, or about US$ 10 billion, as he calculates it.

Perhaps we actually had this sum in hand; the question of what happened to the funds does still hang in the air. And some disagree with Firmino about the lack of money. “The question isn’t technical or financial, it’s political!” wrote Adauri Souza, superintendent of the Guanabara Bay Institute, in an email, responding to this blogger’s questions.  “If you look at the 21 years that passed since the start of the PDBG, you’ll see that the process was never dealt with as public policy, but as a particular government’s policy; each one that came along set priorities and goals, which came to the slim results we see today.”

With or without adequate funding, the task of sanitation seems to have paralyzed past governments. “Even if you had the check in hand, installing the collection system would have taken more than a decade,” said Firmino. “It’s not a small project. You have to tear up all the cities [around the edge of the bay].  And a large part of the peripheral areas have no drainage, no paving. You’ve got the absence of urbanization, the existence of substandard housing. For example, how do we install a collection system in Rocinha favela?”

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A billion seems like a lot of money, but Firmino says it wasn’t enough

If the problem is so thorny, why did we promise the International Olympic Committee, and ourselves, in 2009, that we’d clean up the Bay by 80% for 2016?

“The 80% goal certainly arose from the hopes of the moment and the expectation that funds would be available,” said Firmino.

Could it be that today’s negative situation is bringing us to a rare moment of realism in Brazil? The start of a phase of down-to-earth achievements? (Could it be that the aborted Morar Carioca urbanization program also suffered from the same love of showy exaggeration? How could we have really brought all Rio favelas up to the standard housing code by 2020?)

If the new Metropolitan Integration Chamber (to be formally set up in 2016), works according to Rio’s state government’s plans, we might really be at the start of such a new phase. We shall see. Its success depends on many autonomous variables. For example, how will 21 city halls be managed and organized? How to ensure that the Chamber will be financially sustainable and politically strong? On the other hand, it’s clear that a metropolitan approach is the only way to deal with many of the region’s issues, particularly sanitation. The metropolitan outlook is new here– and the 1988 Constitution didn’t provide for it.

The metropolitan plan for the bay, according to Firmino, is to intercept combined sewer pipes, collecting most of what runs in the surface runoff system, which now carries about 70% of the state’s sewage. This usually takes sewage away from homes and ends up coursing along with surface runoff, into nearby water bodies. With the intercepts, the sewage will be taken to existing treatment stations at the edge of the bay, currently operating below capacity. Such a system can be found in many cities. Ipanema and Copacabana have separate runoff and sewage systems, but a large belt of pipes under beachfront sidewalks intercepts excess, sending it all (without treatment) into the submarine outfall near the Cagarras Islands.

“Imagine, for example, building a large pipe under the Linha Vermelha highway,” Firmino suggested. Trash would be continuously separated by grates and all the sewage which now ends up in the Bay would be directed to the Alegria treatment station.

According to him, with enough investment and interception public works, we’d see an enormous difference in the Bay in only three years.

O biólogo Mário Moscatelli, defensor da baía e das lagoas do Rio

Biologist Mário Moscatelli, defender of Rio’s Bay and  its lagoons, never tires of pointing out officials’ lack of attention

Who’ll do the job? There would be private sector bidding for concessions  —  public-private-partnerships  — to build the pipes, their connections to treatment stations and to operate these for 30 years. These companies, with assured sewage rate income, would have the wherewithal to take on private sector loans. Firmino says that government participation would also be needed, to move toward the goal of separate systems for runoff and sewage.

The solution is not ideal. With heavy rain, the system would be overloaded and we’d have sewage running into the Bay. Firmino believes that Rio sees relatively few days of heavy rain and says that “dry weather flow treatment” as the solution is called, would be a step forward on the metropolitan region’s long path toward acceptable sanitation, with separate systems and 100% treatment.

Gradually, the various cities would contribute with connections to the interception system.

Cedae would focus on the region’s water supply, a long-term area of strength for which the company recently took on a  R$ 3.2 billion loan. Sewage is clearly not a company investment priority. All Rio  — not only favelas — suffers from leaky malodorous sewage, a product of inadequate maintenance. With private sector participation in sewage works, we might get more transparency on goals and schedules.

In the medium term, says Firmino, the Chamber will focus on building separate systems in both formal and informal areas of the metropolis that have large concentrations of residents, such as the Alemão and Maré favela complexes.

He expects the state legislature to pass a law creating the metropolitan entity, and to have a regional sanitation model by the end of 2015. The model will include year-to-year goals for the Bay cleanup. It also will tackle an analysis of the recently announced state government proposals, as well as monitoring and followup.

Since 1991, Brazil’s democracy has matured. Today, significant civil society participation is expected in any project to clean up the Bay and its shores. “A pact for the Bay, bringing together all existing interests in its waters — municipal, state and federal governments; industry, commerce, tourism, leisure; fishermen and civil society — is fundamental,” commented Souza in his email response. “This pact should make possible the implantation of a model of governance for the Bay. Only in this way will we be able to establish real goals, with controls and monitoring, of socio-environmental improvements. Until this happens, all those who live on the shores will be threatened by lesser interests.”

The Olympic Games are no longer the main incentive for sanitation; now it’s all about our health and the growing cost of the Bay’s unrealized potential. Yet there still is haste. We’ll see how events unfold in coming months, as the first quarter of 2016 is when Firmino expects to see the first private bids for sections of the metropolitan area’s sewage needs.

Is the time-frame realistic? Fingers crossed for down-to-earthness.

The good news is that, even with continued sewage disposal in the Bay during all these years, we now have more clarity about the public policy approach. “It’s the first time it’s clear who controls the Metropolitan Region,” says Firmino, who has experience with creating the Região dos Lagos (Lakes Region) dry weather flow system. “The public-private-partnerships mean significant investment,” he adds. “It’s the first time we have this chance, the first time we are thinking in an integrated fashion.”

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About Rio real

American journalist, writer, editor who's lived in Rio de Janeiro for 20 years.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Transformation of Rio de Janeiro / Transformação do Rio de Janeiro and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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