Pushing to clean up Brazil's waterways

Fernando Gomes stretches over the bridge and pulls his net out of the murky green waters of the Canal de Joatinga, where Rio de Janeiro's flatland lagoons flow out to the Atlantic Ocean.

The retired military officer isn't having much success. A morning's work has netted only a handful of the fish he had planned to share with neighbors. The waters, he says, are polluted with rubbish and sewage. It used to be so different.

"It was marvellous around here. The water was clean and there were lots of different kinds of fish. That little island had nothing on it," he says, nodding to buildings across the water. "Those condominiums over there didn't exist.... Now all the sewage and garbage from the condominiums are emptied into the lagoons."

Tales of ecological degradation are nothing new in Brazil, a nation almost as well known for its environmental problems as for its outstanding natural beauty. To many of those who live and work around once-spectacular Barra de Tijuca, the destruction of its mangrove swamps and the pollution of its beaches and lakes seem particularly unnecessary. The burgeoning city, often described as a tropical Miami Beach, is just a few miles from Rio de Janeiro, more than close enough to have learned from that city's errors and lack of planning.

"I can excuse the pollution in Rio, but not in Barra, because it is not a question of knowledge anymore," says Mario Moscatelli, a biologist who resigned from the Rio government in March to protest the lack of action on pollution. "We are making the same mistakes all over again. The ecosystems supported this for more than 400 years, but it has reached the point where they can't take it any longer."

For Mr. Moscatelli, the construction of a community like Barra de Tijuca was the perfect opportunity for Brazil to show it was paying more attention to the environment. The city started to expand in the 1970s, when a tunnel was built linking it to Rio's chic south side. In the past 20 years, its population has jumped from 40,000 to 240,000, says Rodrigo Bethlem, a top city official.

With ocean on one side and three freshwater lagoons on the other, it was the ideal setting for a new outdoors community. The beaches were long and clean, and the lagoons were famous for shrimp and white heron.

Then condominiums were built opposite the beaches and factories were constructed on the edge of freshwater lagoons. Raw sewage quickly turned them into fetid pools. Each condominium was required to build its own sewage-treatment system, but not all are up to standard. A study carried out by the municipal government last year found that 30 percent of the sewage dumped into one of the lagoons, the Lagoa de Marapendi, was insufficiently treated.

Just as in Rio, where 75 percent of the beaches recently were declared unfit for bathing, it is sewage that is causing the most problems. In the Baixada de Jacarapegua, the flatlands that include Barra de Tijuca and a handful of other small cities, there is only one sewage-treatment plant for 800,000 residents and scores of factories and businesses. "It is not that there is excrement in the water," says Moscatelli. "There is water in the excrement. It's like a toilet bowl."

Experts say the fact that Brazil is home to 40 percent of the world's freshwater lakes and lagoons has led to a lack of respect. "People think we have all these beautiful lakes, so it won't matter if we throw rubbish in this one, because there are plenty more," says Sandra Azevedo, a biologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro who carried out a three-year study on polluted waterways.

The study found that the level of microcystins, a toxin linked to a form of cancer, was more than 40 times the maximum recommended by the World Health Organization. Levels of lead, magnesium, zinc, and other heavy metals are as much as 300 times above the maximum. A study in a canal close to Rio's Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas registered fecal matter at 2.4 million times the recommended norm.

The presence of microcystins and other toxins has obliterated aquatic life in the three coastal lagoons surrounding Barra, Ms. Azevedo says. Ten years ago, fishermen caught 800 tons of shrimp in the Lagoa de Jacarapegua, she notes. Last year, they caught none.

The Rio state and city governments are together investing more than $200 million to construct a sewage-treatment plant and underground drainage system to take treated sewage far out into the sea. But the project is long term and money is hard to come by. It will be 2012 before the state water authorities have enough money to build a second water-treatment plant, Mr. Bethlem says. Officials acknowledge it will take at least another five years for the lagoons to begin to look, and smell, cleaner. That's little comfort for people like Mr. Gomes.

"The thing to do would have been to plan, but the planners just built and built," he says. The damage is done. One more reason why we are still in the third world."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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