Rio 2016 Olympics – In Need of Better Governance

Rio de Janeiro unveils itself to the world on Friday as the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games commences. The prelude to the Olympics has been marred by recent controversies, not all of which are culpable to Rio’s unpreparedness. The Russian doping scandal has once again questioned the integrity of international sporting organisations after a string of recent high profile incidents.

It is the state of Guanabara Bay, the site for the Olympic sailing events, which epitomises the chronic lack in governance that plagues the city. The international community has long known the calamitous condition of Guanabara Bay. Over twenty years ago, the Brazilian government gained funding for a series of water treatment plants. The full potential of these plants were never utilised due to the absence of any sort of urban planning. Disorganised favelas have grown rapidly, hindering any attempt to integrate the major infrastructure projects that are required for the area.

According to Gelson Seva, Rio’s Deputy State secretary of Environment, the consequence of such deficient infrastructure means only 34% of Rio’s sewage is treated, allowing 8,200 litres of untreated sewage to flow into the bay every second. Faecal coliform, the principal bacterial component to sewage and proxy for its prevalence, was recorded in the bay at levels 78 times greater that the Brazilian legal limit and 198 times the US limit.

As part of Rio’s bid for the Olympics back in 2009, $4 billion of investment into sanitary infrastructure was pledged, over $1 billion of which was taken out of civil taxes. The contract was awarded to Odebrecht, South America’s largest construction company, in order to construct 8 new water treatment plants along the city’s waterways. Only one has been completed. Marcelo Odebrecht, former head of Odebrecht, has been sentenced to 19 years in prison for bribery and money laundering.

Since the 1950s Rio has suffered economically from the relocation of the capital to Brasilia. The discovery of oil deposits, which were capitalised on by the state-owned and Rio-based oil company, Petrobras, brought some respite from this economic downturn, before the commodities prices collapsed at the end of 2014. This unravelled a series of cases linked to that of Mr. Odebrecht, such as former president Dilma Rousseff, which have caused even greater political instability within the country. The governor has now defined the state of affairs as a “public calamity” in order to release $800m of emergency funds in order to complete works and pay overdue wages in time for the games. On Saturday, the $3.1 billion extension to the current metro service was finally completed, an overdue improvement that seeks to ease traffic flows to the main Olympic neighbourhood of Barra.

To ignore the progress that has been made, despite these obstacles, would be disingenuous. Treatment of sewage discharge has risen to 50%, although remains 30% off its proposed target. Eco-boats and eco-barriers are working to remove debris and larger items from the bay, which has thus far created unique navigational challenges for Olympic sailors.

In a final attempt to salvage the sanitation situation the Clean Urban Delta Initiative has been independently formed; consisting of a number of Dutch waste experts from a range of sectors. The schemes put forward have either been issued too late for any striking changes to occur, or have been derailed as a result of insufficient funding. One positive that the Initiative has brought forward is a transferrable template that can be used globally by cities that suffer from similar environmental conditions.

The juxtaposition between wealth and poverty is starker in Rio compared to most cities around the world. Disregard for their basic infrastructure requirements has highlighted this neglect. The attitude of Carlos Carvalho, a major property developer within Rio is an embodiment of the damaging social divides. Mr. Carvalho has been essential to the development of many of the Olympic sites. Whilst this private investment has greatly reduced the cost of the Olympics for the city, his fantasy is of a city that magnifies social division, indicating that lower social classes already have space to live in the outskirts of the city, as a justification for preparing to sell the Olympic village as luxury housing after the games have finished.

It would have been wise for Rio to learn from the success of London in this regard, who took the opportunity of the previous games to regenerate the forgotten and degenerated part of East London. Whilst there might be contention about how the negative implications this sort of gentrification has caused, it is far more constructive than extending social divides. The discontent in Rio is evident. 40%, down from 92% in 2009, of residents have any interest at all in the games, and a series of protests are planned in this week’s lead up.

The games have brought to light many of the issues that Rio has to address in the long term. One can hope that Mr. Cavalho’s dream does not become a reality, and the city can use the games as a platform for more equitable development across the city, continuing initiatives that have been brought forward for the occasion. Sadly, the reality of the current recession within Brazil makes this prospect rather remote.