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Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – It is common sense among anyone in tune with the environmental challenges of years to come that water will be more precious than gold. Brazil is endowed with 10 to 12 percent of the fresh water resources in the world, but is not managing such richness properly.

Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.
Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.

Although 72 percent of the population in the country lives in the south and southeast regions, they only have access to fifteen percent of Brazil’s hydric resources, according to Ethos Institute. The majority of the water in the country is in the Amazon Basin.

Cariocas, as Rio de Janeiro’s citizens are called, are the top water consumers in Brazil, using close to 250 liters of water per day. Eighty percent of all the water that feeds Rio’s metropolitan region comes from the Guandu Water Treatment Station. Guandu’s water comes from Paraíba do Sul river, one of the top ten most polluted rivers in Brazil. Approximately three hundred tons of chemicals are added daily to make this water drinkable for nine million consumers.

The Paraíba do Sul river has been at the center of controversy over the years because although the fountainhead is located in São Paulo State, at Serra da Bocaina, its waters were diverted in the 1950’s to feed Rio’s growing needs. Over the years, with expanding industries and population, São Paulo developed a need to increase its water supply, and creating a new catch system on Paraíba do Sul is one of the top options. If that happens, Rio and São Paulo will need to come to an agreement on how to share their dwindling water supply.

In Baixada Fluminense, an area located in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, people often have shortages of water. Neighbors collectively purchase “carros pipa”, or water trucks, for their city blocks at a very high price. The irony is that these homes are next to the Guandu Water Treatment Facility, the largest of its kind in the world. People have to resort to extreme ways to get water and it is not uncommon to see “gatos” or illegal connections tapping into the water mains.

According to Trata Brasil Institute, 46 percent of the treated water is lost in Rio State, mostly due to theft, faulty pipes and wrong metering. The state company responsible for Rio’s faulty freshwater distribution and wastewater treatment is called CEDAE.

Amidst this scenario, Petrobrás is building the largest chemical plant complex in Latin America on the municipality of Itaboraí, located east from the Guanabara Bay. The industrial complex, known as COMPERJ, will meet its water needs by bringing treated sewage through a 17 kilometer submarine pipeline across the Guanabara Bay, connecting the Alegria treatment plant in Caju to São Gonçalo, where CEDAE and Petrobrás will build the Estação de Produção de Água Industrial, or Industrial Water Production Station (Epai). From São Gonçalo to COMPERJ, the treated water will run another 32 kilometers before reaching its final destination: the steam and cooling systems of the industrial complex.

The pipeline alone will cost CEDAE a cool R$600 million, or US$300 million. The complex will also have to lay down an additional R$200 million to build a dam on the Guapiaçu river necessary to provide drinking water and energy for its employees and surrounding communities.

According to biologist Mário Moscatelli, the Alegria waste treatment plant works at half capacity, while the existing plant in São Gonçalo, closer to COMPERJ, never saw one drop of sewage come into its system because it never worked.

Although the initiative to reutilize post-consumer water is a noble one, why bring water from across the bay instead of finishing the sewage treatment and collection system in São Gonçalo? Local communities would benefit not only through the offer of jobs and drinking water, but also by having a solution to the wastewater problem.

According to FGV (Getulio Vargas Foundation), gastrointestinal infections cost the private sector alone R$550 million a year on wages paid to absentee employees – almost enough money to finance the submarine pipeline. Perhaps the money invested on this transposition would better serve the people and the companies if it was used to extend the waste treatment on the Itaboraí metropolitan areas.

According to the 2011 Atlas of Sanitation, a document created by IBGE (Institute of Geography and Statistics), less than half of Brazilian households have access to sewage systems. The Southeast of the country has the best percentages of capturing wastewater but also have some of the most polluted rivers as seen with the Paraíba do Sul.

Brazil’s Napoleon complex is the downfall of the country. Ask any Brazilian where the largest of anything is and the answer will certainly be: in Brazil! Leaving behind this obsession of grandeur could lead to the emergence of smaller projects such as rainwater catching systems and decentralized plants to capture and treat wastewater that would cost far less and could solve part of the problem. Rio state gets close to 2,000 liters of rainwater per square meter a year, a considerable figure that literally goes down the drain.

So my advice to those tax payers who finance these projects, hold on to your wallet because they are coming after it.

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Alfonso Stefanini has an MA in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California and a BA from Hampshire College. Alfonso lives in Rio de Janeiro, and he can be reached at: Ecobrasilis@gmail.com .

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