The waters of Guanabara Bay, the inlet that Rio de Janeiro in Brazil fronts, and Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, a large salt-water body of water at the foot of Corcovado, the hill that the famous Christ the Redeemer statue sits atop, are slated to hold the sailing and rowing competitions during next year’s Olympic Games.
They are also teeming with sewage, trash and unknown quantities of dangerous viruses. Fish have been dying off by the thousands.
The authorities of Rio de Janeiro state have been reluctant to do anything about the problem, despite that in order to land the Olympics, it had promised to do something about the water quality.
But apart from some boats fishing garbage out of the water, nothing much has been done.
To convince people that nothing is wrong with the water, Rio’s state environment secretary André Corrêa jumped into the Guanabara Bay in May, but the stunt didn’t convince many.
Now with the Games only a year away, the pollution in the bay and lagoon has been the topic of growing concern – most recently because of 13 American rowers who came down with a mysterious stomach ailment after participating in the World Junior Rowing Championships held at the lagoon.
Nevertheless the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is determined to turn a blind eye to the situation.
Speaking at a news conference dominated by questions about Rio's sewage pollution problem on Wednesday, Olympic executive director, Christophe Dubi, said the IOC would be sticking to World Health Organization guidelines recommending only bacterial testing.
"WHO is very clear that bacterial testing is what should be followed," said Dubi. "They have restated that bacterial testing is the measure that has to be used and will continue to be used by the authorities ... It is the best measure to be used."
The decision flies in the face of what concerned environmentalists like the Brazilian biologist Mario Moscatelli say is occurring.
He estimates that in the last 20 or 30 years at least a billion dollars has been earmarked for decontaminating the water in Guanabara Bay as well as creating a proper sewage system and beefing up garbage collection in the bay’s surrounding municipalities.
But nearly all of that money has vanished into corrupt politicians’ pockets without much in the way of tangible results.
“If the money that was earmarked had been spent properly, the bay wouldn’t have been as filthy as it is now. You know, for the politicians it’s just a machine that produces money,” Moscatelli told reporters at a July event, standing in water while dressed in waders to dramatize the condition of the water in which old refrigerators and sofas can be seen floating.
Moscatelli told Fox News Latino, “Some facilities to decontaminate the water have been constructed, but some have never been used and others weren’t built in the proper place! We flew over the bay and took pictures -- everywhere you see garbage and feces.”
The Associated Press hired a team of researchers to examine the water quality in the bay and lagoon, and published the results on July 30: The water is dangerous for human beings.
A few days later, on Monday Aug. 3, the governor of Rio state governor, Luiz Fernando Pezão, announced measures that he said had been in the works for a while: A group of seven universities and three research institutes would draw up plans to solve the pollution problem of the Guanabara Bay in the next 15 years.
Moscatelli’s reaction to Pezão’s measure was, “It’s no use. We need concrete steps now to do the cleaning and solve the cause of the pollution.”
Other experts feel the same. University professor and biologist Daniel Brotto told FNL, “This problem cannot be solved by universities. We need companies who have the technology and knowledge to do the job. And we need to educate the surrounding communities to not throw the garbage into the bay.”
The IOC’s Dubi, meantime, dismissed the claim that U.S. rowers had come down with a stomach illness because of exposure to lagoon water, despite the team doctor said she suspected it was due to pollution at the Olympic venue.
Nawal El Moutawakel, who heads the IOC's inspection team that comes to Rio every six months to check on the city's Olympic preparations, also cast doubt on the U.S. team doctor.
"The IOC puts on the highest priority the athletes, and our friends around this table are doing their upmost so that this issue of water quality is being heavily dealt with so the athletes can compete in secure and safe environments," she said.
Several water experts cited by the AP disagree that bacterial testing is enough. There is little to no correlation between the amount of bacteria from sewage in waters and the amount of viruses, they say, with astronomical viral counts in Rio’s waters – up to 1.7 million times what would be considered alarming on a southern California beach – yet with bacterial levels often within legal limitations.
Saying it was difficult to parse out what, exactly, the Olympic water cleanup promises made by the Rio government entailed, the IOC's Dubi suggested that while the games may not lead to a solution, at least the recent media spotlight had helped call attention to the problem.
"Thanks to the games, the level of awareness regarding the bay has been raised to unprecedented levels, which is a good thing," Dubi said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.