Sailing events for the 2016 Olympics are set to take place in Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay, one of the most beautiful spots in the region – from a distance.
But the bay’s waters are terribly polluted, tainted with sewage, plastic bags, bits of wood and even old sofas. Authorities have a big job on their hands as they move to clean up the area in the run-up to the Games.
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"I hope to see these waters cleaned up before the 2016 Olympic Games."
Back in the 1960s, when I was just a kid, I remember watching swimmers in Guanabara Bay and seeing dolphins race alongside the ferries that transported people to and from the city of Niteroi and Paqueta island. Beaches like Icarai in Niteroi and Cocota on Governor’s Island were very popular.
So I felt sad when I took a boat through the bay on an assignment recently and photographed discarded sofas, old children’s toys, rubber tires, and a toilet seat among many other objects that littered the filthy water.
I was born in this area when it was still called Guanabara, before it was renamed Rio de Janeiro state in 1975. I still miss that old name, which was a reference to our beautiful but polluted bay.
I hope to see these waters cleaned up before the 2016 Olympic Games, when they will host the sailing events. But after spending a couple of days seeing how dirty the bay has become, it will be a massive job. I pray that a piece of floating debris will not hit a boat during the sailing competition or a stray plastic bag will not affect the outcome of who stands on the podium and who doesn’t!
As I photographed Guanabara Bay, I thought back to my time covering the sailing at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The biggest concern there was sharks – nothing compared to the problems that sewage could cause for our Games if it’s not cleaned up on time.
On this recent tour of Guanabara Bay I was accompanied by biologist and environmental activist Mario Moscatelli, who said something I found very sad: “Brazilian authorities live in a parallel universe, looking through rose-tinted glasses at a world that has a different smell and different colours, which has none of the garbage we see floating and accumulating in the mangroves along Guanabara Bay."
During the competition to be chosen as an Olympic host city, Rio de Janeiro promised to clean up these waters and work is now being done. The chairwoman of the International Olympic Committee’s Coordination Commission recently said: “We have been assured Guanabara Bay will have all the rubbish removed."
During my two days out taking pictures, I saw part of the clean-up operation – a little boat with a sign reading: “Project for a bay without garbage”. It is one of a small fleet of vessels working to pick up trash in the area.
It’s something. But with sewage constantly flowing into these waters, I think they are going to need a bigger boat!