By Blake Sherman and Ben Tavener, Contributing Reporters
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The city of Rio is investing R$10 million (nearly US$5 million) in efforts to clean up Leblon Beach as part of a wider campaign to rid six of the city’s beach areas of pollution by 2014, when the city plays host to a number of the FIFA World Cup games. For many, the clean-up operation is long overdue, long promised and by some reports is already behind schedule.
The money being spent on Leblon is part of “Sena Limpa“, an operation that will invest a total of R$150 million (just under US$75 million) from the State Environmental Conservation and Urban Development Fund, FECAM, that aims to clean up the beaches at a number of points in the city.
According to FECAM, the areas targeted under the program are: São Conrado, Ipanema, Leme and Urca, and part of the Ilha do Governador in Guanabara Bay, the site of Rio’s Galeão International Airport.
The first beach to be completed, according to FECAM, will be Leme in June 2013, with Urca, Bica and São Conrado beaches to be completed by the end of the year, and Leblon beach, clearly posing the biggest task, to be finished by the end of 2014. The government says pollution has already been noticeably reduced at a number of sites since the project began late in 2012, particularly around Ipanema.
Leblon is Rio’s most affluent and highly sought-after neighborhood and, as such, commands some of the highest property prices in Brazil. Yet it has also garnered a reputation for two canals that channel greywater into the sea, leading to pollution and other unwelcome substances blighting the coastline.
The sources of the pollution is said to be unregulated and illegal drainage systems from both favelas and the surrounding neighborhood itself. Environmental expert and U.S. expatriate Alfonso Stefanini, who has lived in Rio for eight years, feels the clean-up is a positive step for Rio’s environment but admits there are the challenges that inevitably come with it:
“The city needs to think of what happens upstream, to determine accurately where freshwater comes from and where it eventually mixes with the city’s sewage systems and storm drains.”
“Greywater and sewage coming from faulty pipes and illegal sewage works in Rio, in addition to Rio’s abundant sources of fresh water coming from nearby mountains and heavy annual rainfall, make Rio a very hydrologically active city. Rio has a number of rivers running its streets that make sanitation difficult.”
British expatriate Mary Byker, who owns Mekong restaurant in Leblon, believes the issue of cleanliness on Leblon’s beaches is a symptom of one of Brazil’s historical issues: “This stems from years of underinvestment in basic infrastructure. A situation where sewage and industrial waste from Guanabara Bay and other area still blights Rio’s major asset – its beaches: it’s crazy.”
A number of organizations and local residents have come together to work on the Sena Limpa project and carry out vital monitoring. The government has told residents it hopes the work can be completed in under two years.
For now local residents speaking to The Rio Times appear to be relieved that work is finally underway, but are skeptical about the extent to which the beaches can be effectively alleviated of pollution and, as with many large-scale operations, about whether it will run to schedule.