Rio Olympics May Be Over, But Water Woes Are Not

Green pool water. Raw sewage. Horrible traffic.

Those are issues being cited in post-mortem write-ups on the 31stOlympic Games hosted by Rio De Janeiro. Considering the pre-games news about Zika virus and global terrorist threats, I say bravo to Rio for successfully hosting the Olympics.

Reported logistical glitches — like lack of signage, ticket snafus and unreliable volunteers—can go wrong anywhere and can surely be fixed anywhere. Bad traffic? That’s simply unheard of anywhere else in the world, right? Even the embarrassing green hue in Rio’s Olympic diving pool was declared safe.

“Glitches” aside, what’s truly overwhelming to me is the fact that Rio’s broken water infrastructure disproportionately affects its poor populations. Raw sewage and industrial discharge regularly flow into Guanabara Bay. According to a National Geographic article published August 15 during the Rio games, “Waterborne illnesses are a major problem for Rio residents, especially Rio’s poorest people who live near the most polluted parts of the bay and have the least access to sanitation.”

Yes, a handful of athletes (some sailing in Rio’s Guanabara Bay) may have fallen ill, but they can always go home and hone their skills in more pristine waters. Meanwhile, who’s fixing Rio’s water infrastructure? Once everyone has gone home and the media’s attention turns elsewhere, will we still care? Do we really care now? And, is our water infrastructure in the U.S. that much better? According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, $4.8 trillion must be invested in our aging water infrastructure over the next 20 years. And, sewage spills happen all the time in the U.S.

Rooting for the underdog

During the Rio Olympics, I watched hours of the games from 5,000 miles north at my home in Austin, Texas. I thoroughly enjoyed the opening and closing ceremonies, and watching my fellow Americans kick ass in swimming, gymnastics, beach volleyball, the triathlon, the marathon, and basketball. And when I wasn’t cheering for the U.S., I was rooting for Brazil. Why? Mainly, because Brazil was the underdog — and I don’t mean in sports. Rio hosted the first Olympic games ever held in South America, and that’s despite remarkable economic, political and public health (Zika) setbacks surfacing since winning the Olympic bid seven years ago.

Another reason I rooted for Brazil at the Rio games is I have an affinity for the place and the people. In 2012, I got the chance to spend 10 days there reporting from the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. First, on a minor note, I was astounded at the athleticism I witnessed on Rio’s beaches of Ipanema. Cariocas (Rio natives) were playing volleyball with their feet, slapping tennis balls back and forth across high nets with stunning zip (even on sand) as well as running, biking, walking — allthe time. It did not surprise me that Brazil did so well with both beach and indoor volleyball, and with so many other sports, including winning soccer in a huge stadium thriller on the penultimate night of the Rio games. Again — bravo, Rio!

Brazilian athleticism aside, when I was there for Rio+20, I was humbled as I got to learn more about Rio’s less-than-adequate water infrastructure, and the “favelas(shanty towns) that have no real infrastructure. They’re very much like the “colonias” we see in Texas, where communities are built without any formal infrastructure for water, power, roads, communications and waste disposal. As a public health communications advocate working in the Lone Star State, I know the conditions in our colonias aren’t much of a stretch beyond the favelas of Rio. And regarding Brazil and Zika, the issue didn’t come up much during the games. However, reports of an outbreak surfaced guess where? South Florida.

Also, the global effects of climate change are being felt not just in the rainforests of Brazil, but also in tiny places like Tuvalu in the South Pacific, which risks being lost forever due to rising sea levels. But even places like New York City and Miami in the U.S. face similar rising sea level challenges.

At Rio+20, I got to interview a 20-something-year-old man named Miguel Lago, an entrepreneur and Rio native entrenched in defending the poor and disenfranchised with his nonprofit, Meu Rio. At the time we spoke in 2012, Rio+20 was being considered by some throughout the world to be a failure, not because of infrastructure issues but because of the lack of traction in global sustainability negotiations. Failure at a global gathering hosted by Rio? Sound familiar?

Miguel said to me then: “What is good of this perception of failure is the important lesson that we won’t get sustainability only by government.” Miguel added that it was a great opportunity for people to mobilize for social change. Meaning, we — consumers — should demand change and not rely on government to do everything.

Rooting for LA Olympics 2024

International Olympic Committee Vice President Sir Craig Reedie was quoted in a recent Associated Press post-Rio games article: “Going forward, the IOC has to learn from the experience in Rio if it wants to take the games to places other than settled, affluent, cosmopolitan cities.”

Which brings me here: Is the “settled, affluent, cosmopolitan” city of Los Angeles in a much better position to host the 2024 Olympic Games than Rio was in 2016? In Southern California, there’s world-class traffic, and there’s a whole different set of water infrastructure challenges. The drought-stricken region faces unique challenges to bringing reliable, clean water to its population of 19 million people in six counties with a $1 trillion economy. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California relies heavily on snow pack 800 miles to the north via the State Water Plan (Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers), and the Colorado River (which shares its water with three other states). Throw in drought and environmental regulations (read: Delta smelt), and you’ve got world-class water supply challenges.

Don’t get me wrong. The water suppliers in Southern California are conquering huge challenges with a world-class water infrastructure. And I’m very much rooting for LA to win the 2024 Olympics bid. I love LA’s idea of tapping into its existing infrastructure, such as Dodger Stadium and the Rose Bowl, to facilitate the games. Believe me, one of the most depressing things I’ve ever seen was visiting the desolate, crumbling, graffiti-laden Olympic Village of the 2004 games in beautiful Athens when I was there in 2011.

Know your water source, infrastructure

What can we as a global society do, between Rio 2016 and — hopefully — LA 2024, to heighten awareness of our world’s extreme water challenges? How can we bring attention to the need to help the Cariocas living in favelas get access to a world-class water infrastructure? After all, isn’t access to clean water a human right?

We can start by knowing the natural source of our drinking water and never take for granted the amazing infrastructure it takes to ensure a clean, reliable supply gets to our homes and businesses. And, like Miguel Lago of Rio says, we as consumers must demand change.

My company has conducted many studies that show the more you know the natural source of your drinking water, the more willing you are to avoid wasting it — and the less you will take your water infrastructure for granted. I’ve already established Southern California gets much of its water from Northern California and the Colorado River, and has built an amazing water infrastructure. What about Rio? According to the Nature Conservancy, “The rivers of the Guandú watershed provide about 80 percent of the fresh water and generate 25 percent of the electricity used by residents of the Rio de Janeiro metropolitan area, benefiting almost eight million people.” There are great projects (like the Water and Forest Producers program) to protect this freshwater supply, but what’s being done to connect the entire city to an infrastructure that doesn’t dump untreated water into Guanabara Bay?

Post-Rio Olympics, isn’t it time to demand change now for the favelas of Rio, for the Tuvalu citizens threatened by climate change, for the strained water infrastructure in the U.S., including the infrastructure in wealthy Southern California, or in your own town? We in the U.S. — with all our “settled, affluent cosmopolitan cities” — should realize we are not immune to the water infrastructure, climate change, pollution and public health challenges the rest of the world faces. But what are we doing about it?

Update 8/29/16: AP reports raw sewage spills in Houston disproportionately affect poor, Hispanic, black neighborhoods. EPA intervenes. Up to $5 billion in upgrades, maintenance needed.

Update 9/3/16: New York Times reports “Flooding of Coast, Caused By Global Warming, Has Already Begun.” Features Norfolk, Old Town Alexandria, VA; Ft. Lauderdale, Miami Beach, FL; Tybee Island, GA; Charleston, SC, and more.

Update 9/4/16: New York Times reports WHO says no Zika cases reported during Rio Olympics. “The W.H.O. said in May that the Olympics would not significantly affect the spread of the Zika virus and that canceling the Games did not make sense. … [The virus] is now spreading fast in the Caribbean, particularly in Puerto Rico, where there are more than 14,000 infections, including in nearly 1,000 pregnant women. In the continental United States, small clusters have occurred in South Florida.”