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Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – A “lingua negra” or black tongue is a common terminology used by Cariocas when they talk about the mysterious untreated flow of raw sewage that slowly and congruently slips into the oceans, sometimes making its way through some of the most popular beaches in Rio.

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

The untreated water comes from illegal connections throughout the city, coming from all socioeconomic neighborhoods in Rio. Not even the American Consulate was free from this problem as it was forced to fix a sewage leak a few months ago from one of its homes in the noble neighborhood of Leblon.

According to the neighbors, the source of the olfactory discomfort or “cheiro do ralo” (smelly drain) was coming from the storm drains next to the American State owned home. Rio’s State Environmental Institute (Inea) was eventually called forcing the Consulate to fix the problem.

Smelly drains are not a new problem to Cariocas. In fact, they are so recurrent that a book on this subject was made into a film called “Cheiro do Ralo”, or “Drained” in English. The movie tells the story of a pawnshop owner obsessed with girls’ butts who takes a particular pride in exploiting his clients.

He did have one problem; a smelly backed-up bathroom drain that always forced him to excuse himself to his customers and visitors by saying that the smell is not from him but from the stinky drain.

Carlos Minc, Rio’s State Secretary for the Environment, has been particularly proactive about this “cheiro do ralo” problem. Him and his department have been on a personal crusade “corking up,” with cement of course, clandestine pipes coming from apartment buildings and houses illegally dumping untreated water into the storm drains and water basins in Rio. This unorthodox approach to clogging people pipes is showing signs of success according to various reports.

According to state law decree, property owners are required to connect to the sewage lines sixty days after a construction site is finished. This law is ineffective at times because many building sites are finished before the sanitary network is in place, as seen with gigantic building complex sites in Recreio, Jacarepaguá and Barra da Tijuca, where buildings go up faster than Rio’s waterworks department (Cedae) can lay down the proper sanitary pipes.

This chicken or the egg causality can make things quite complicated because the state and property owners get themselves in a stalemate as to who assumes the responsibilities and the costs for the existing and future wastewater problem.

In the absence of public wastewater infrastructure, broken or faulty pipes and clandestine sewage connections, the wastewater is carried by the many rivers that make up Rio de Janeiro’s landscape.

The State University of Santa Catarina (Udesc), in Southern Brazil, has developed a river-monitoring program based on nine water quality standards including physiochemical parameters such as dissolved oxygen, pH, nitrogen, phosphorus and coliform counts. The program so far has shown signs of great success in the protection of watersheds by way of monitoring.

I believe that Rio de Janeiro needs a program like the one being used in Santa Catarina State. Moreover, I believe citizens in Rio should be involved in monitoring programs by providing important empirical data detailing the history of riparian ecosystems. Such qualitative data would include simple biological indicators such as moss and animal counts, creating a wholesome understanding of the overall health of a given watershed.

The city of Rio de Janeiro is under the spotlight with upcoming international events such as the World Cup and the Olympic Games. State policies need to include sustainable urban development practices such as on-site solid waste reduction, intelligent water management and river monitoring.

Furthermore, the impact of the new urban sprawl in the outskirts of Rio city needs to be properly accessed to protect the natural environment so revered in this Marvelous City. Rio should take the opportunity to cork up the “cheiro do ralo” for good.
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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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