By Scott Salmon
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Rio de Janeiro is undeniably one of the world’s most naturally gifted places. Like just a few cities in the new world–Cape Town, Sydney, Vancouver and Wellington–it has an international reputation based on its truly stunning natural topography.
Unlike those places, however, Rio seems to take its unique setting for granted – undermining the very foundation on which its marvelous reputation rests.
This obtuse refusal to preserve and enhance the city’s extraordinary natural asset is reflected in inertia – or incompetence – around issues both large and small.
Perhaps the most egregious example is the continuing failure to address the city’s alarming levels of water pollution. Approximately 16 million people live in the Guanabara Bay drainage basin; over half of the homes in this region remain unconnected to sewage treatment plants. That waste flows untreated into the bay.
Urban runoff and industrial wastewater are also major sources of pollution. Every day an estimated 150 metric tons of industrial wastewater – including that from pharmaceutical refineries, oil and gas terminals – flow into the waters of Guanabara Bay.
The consequence is that beaches inside the bay, from Botafogo to Niteroi, are so polluted as to be unswimmable.
Marine wildlife has also been catastrophically affected. Guanabara Bay was once frequented by thousands of fish species, dolphins and whales. No longer.
On the beaches at the mouth of the bay – Copacabana, Ipanema – the situation is only marginally better. São Conrado, arguably the city’s most beautiful ocean beach, is – due to untreated sewage runoff – now one of its most polluted.
But there are many other more quotidian examples of how a lack of awareness or effective planning procedure has tarnished the natural beauty of Rio’s setting.
The historical lack of stringent or enforced planning regulations governing criteria such as density, height, and design, means that the world-famous Copacabana and Ipanema waterfronts are lined with towers of surprisingly mediocre quality.
Likewise, while the recent proliferation of new bars and food kiosks along the boardwalks of those beaches may generate revenue – although there are obvious problems of oversupply – they simultaneously obscure visual and physical access to the very natural spectacle they depend on.
The trip from Recreio along the beaches of Barra to São Conrado, past Vidigal, Ipanema, on to Copacabana is – or, more accurately, should be – iconic.
Winding as it does under the massive outcroppings of the Pedra da Gavea and Dois Irmaos, the Avenida Niemeyer alone offers breathtaking vistas over one of the world’s most jaw-dropping urban coastlines.
It’s no exaggeration to compare this journey to that along the Amalfi Coast – a UNESCO world heritage site.
Inexplicably, views from Avenida Niemeyer were initially obscured by an elevated pipeline constructed – on the ocean side – to convey sewage from São Conrado and Rocinha to the Leblon treatment station. It has never been connected.
Then, just before the Olympics, counter to engineering advice, the city constructed the Tim Maia cycle path which, both elevated and parallel, largely blocks any ocean view from the road behind it.
But only weeks after completion, storm surf destroyed a large section. Despite repairs, the scenario has been repeated. Cycling is now prohibited, and the deteriorating hulk ruins this picturesque urban journey.
Admittedly, these concerns seem trivial in the context of some of the city’s most serious societal woes. For a town that depends as heavily as Rio on revenue from tourism, however, the short-sighted neglect of its greatest environmental asset is baffling.