Guanabara: The Bay of Innocents

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Guanabara Bay: "the bosom of the sea",  though given its levels of untreated sewage "the arse of the sea" might be a more appropriate description

Guanabara Bay: “the bosom of the sea” – though given its levels of untreated sewage, “the arse of the sea” might be a more appropriate description.

As Brazil scrambles to put the finishing touches to its 2014 World Cup preparations, doubts are being expressed about its readiness to stage the 2016 Olympic Games – at least, where the sailing is concerned.

Irish Olympic officials, who visited the city last summer, are worried that high levels of pollution in the waters of Rio’s Guanabara Bay will render it unfit to host the sailing events and have asked that a doctor be flown out to assess what they describe as ‘a significant health risk’.

‘We need to know if we need to take any special immunization precautions,’ said ISA Performance Director, James O’Callaghan, referring to concerns that sailors will be at risk of exposure to a range of illnesses including Hepatitis A, Tetanus and Leptospirosis. If O’Callaghan’s fears are realized, it could amount to Ireland’s most disastrous boating-related experience in the bay since 1827, when Irish mercenaries were incarcerated in prison hulks on the waters following an abortive rebellion.

Guanabara Bay has long functioned as a kind of informal cesspool for Rio de Janeiro’s metropolitan region, absorbing a million litres of untreated waste per day from the fifteen cities encircling its shores. Concentrations of fecal coliforms in its waters can total up to 390,000/100ml – 390 times the limit established by Brazil’s National Environmental Council (Conema). Arguably, the sole factor enabling it to continue to sustain marine life – and supply 95% of the seafood consumed in the city – is its capacity to recycle 50% of its water into the Atlantic Ocean every 24 hours.

There are further concerns that islands of floating rubbish – composed variously of plastic bags, mattresses, sofas, whole trees, television sets and even dead horses – will hamper competitors’ progress through the soupy waters.

‘It’s going to be the dirtiest course in Olympic history,’ admits Torben Grael, head coach of the Brazilian sailing team. ‘I hope that it improves, but we’re going to win the award for the worst water of the Games.’

An ambitious plan to clean up 80% of the bay’s pollution by the opening of the Olympics has been announced by new State Secretary of the Environment, Indio da Costa, incorporating eco-barriers, eco-boats and a series of planned river treatment stations. However, funds have been pumped into ‘de-pollution’ schemes at the rate of untreated sewage into the bay, since 1994 – to the same malodorous effect. Ten years ago, the President of the Brazilian Olympic Committee, Carlos Nuzman, declared that the bay would be entirely pollution-free by the 2007 Pan-American Games. He’s since revised his projections for the Olympics to a ‘partially pollution-free bay’.

Meanwhile, sensible calls for the transfer of the sailing events to the clean, open waters of Buzios, on Rio State’s northern coast, have been rejected by the Olympic Committee for reasons clear only to itself.

It’s a far cry from New Year’s Day, 1502, when Amerigo Vespucci piloted a Portuguese fleet into the limpid waters of the bay for the first time and christened it ‘Rio de Janeiro’ – ‘January Bay’ (‘Rio’ being a synonym of ‘bay’ and not because, as commonly reported, Vespucci mistook the inlet for the mouth of a vast river). Brazil’s pristine landscape and the apparent innocence of its inhabitants led Vespucci to believe himself ‘to be near the terrestrial paradise’. Guanabara would also be known as the ‘Bay of Innocents’ for decades after its Portuguese discovery and the drama and lushness of its topography can only have reinforced Vespucci’s sense that he had rediscovered Eden itself. (His letters describing the country would inspire Thomas Moore’s Utopia and ‘Utopian’ elements of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’: ‘[The Indians] have no laws or faith and live according to nature. They do not recognise the immortality of the soul; and they have among them no private property, because everything is common; they have no boundaries of kingdoms and provinces, and no king!’ Vespucci wrote. ‘They obey nobody, each is lord unto himself…The women go naked, and although libidinous, they are pretty and well shaped. We were amazed that, among those we saw, we noticed none had fallen breasts.’)

The first Irishman to visit Rio, in 1648, and the city’s first tourist – ‘never any man like me before making that voyage merely on Curiosity’ – was Jesuit priest and literary laughing-stock, Richard Flecknoe, who shipped out from Lisbon after blagging 200 crowns and permission from the Portuguese king, Dom João IV. Flecknoe expressed similar misgivings to his Olympic sailing compatriots concerning the salubrity of Guanabara’s waters, claiming, in his inimitable style, that the ‘cunny’ fish – or blowfish – caught in the bay, ‘which swell’d just like blown bladders, when they had lain a while panting on the hatches,’ were ‘rank poison as the Portuguese assured us, the sea being full of diverse other venomous fishes, which render the water unwholsom (sic), as I experimented myself, when bathing me in it, I came out all faintish and ill-dispos’d, accostom’d to come out of other seas more vigorous.’

Flecknoe’s faintishness and ill-disposition did not, however, afflict the members of Rio’s British expat community who colonized the bay’s first beachside resort – Botafogo – in the early 19th century, and laid the foundations of the city’s celebrated beach culture, introducing sea-bathing, afternoon strolls, picnics and competitive sports.

Charles Darwin, who was bowled over by an enormous wave as he rowed ashore in the bay in 1832, described perhaps Guanabara’s first recorded sailing competition involving ‘launches, yawls, cutters & other large boats’ but found the event ‘rather too long; especially as the Beagle did not come off quite so triumphantly as might have been wished for. The evening passed away pleasantly,’ he added, ‘& by moonlight on the beach several foot races were got up between the officers & the crews of Captains gigs.’ (Darwin would spend three months in the city, botanizing his way up the Corcovado in the aftermath of a romantic disappointment and shuddering to think what a ‘horrible lovers’ leap’ it would make. Almost exactly 100 years later, in 1931, the man said to have replaced God was succeeded, on the summit, by a statue of the man said to be God’s son.)

Guanabara Bay’s first rowing regatta was staged in 1849, comprising boats crewed entirely by British or slave oarsmen. The sport would be embraced by Brazil’s late nineteenth century upper classes as the embodiment of their healthy, modernizing, Eurocentric aspirations. It would awaken Brazilians’ self-consciousness about their bodies and stimulate their obsession with the pursuit of physical perfection.

Despite British interest in Botafogo Bay as a picturesque location for country residences, lovingly-tended gardens and highly-structured social interaction, for the locals it remained, like all seafront areas on Guanabara Bay, primarily a site for the disposal of domestic waste. ‘Cloacina has no Altar erected to her in Rio, and a sort of Pot de Chambre is situated for her Temple,’ observed Rio-based wool merchant, John Luccock. ‘The beach, open spaces, and back lanes, are thickly strewed with ever fresh abominations.’ ‘…horses and dogs remain where they drop dead,’ recorded the German mercenary, Charles Schlichthorst, ‘sewage is dumped on the beaches and public squares, and the dead are buried in the churches.’ ‘It is strange to think,’ noted the engineer Thomas Bigg-Wither of the consequences of this approach to waste-disposal, ‘that one of the most lovely spots that nature ever created, should also be one of the most fatal.’

In 1800, precisely zero funds were allocated to the cleaning of the city’s streets which depended on intermittent rains to carry away their accumulated refuse. The city’s sanitation system consisted of a team of slaves tasked with ferrying crates of household sewage through the streets and turfing their contents into the bay. ‘Whatever vent it may find, or however it may be partially evaporated or dried up by the heat,’ recorded the persistently outraged Luccock, ‘the dunghill by the shore accumulates perpetually’. Uric acid leaking from the casks tattooed pale stripes on the slaves’ flesh, earning them the nickname – and fearsome reputation – of ‘tigers’.

Long before Rio had acquired its ‘Marvellous City’ reputation, Deputy Lino Coutinho joked that Brazil must be ‘the healthiest country in the world, because given all the filth in [Rio’s] streets, I don’t know how everybody hasn’t died of the plague.’ But by the mid-nineteenth century, outbreaks of bubonic plague, yellow fever and malaria had prompted the city authorities to belatedly set up a Central Board of Public Hygiene to implement an effective sanitation policy.

In 1857, a contract was signed in London with engineer Edward Gotto for the construction of a sewage and water-drainage system, based on that of Leicester and other English cities. Work began in 1862 and two years later the first treatment station was inaugurated in the district of Gloria (where the Manchester-style building remains today), where sewage was pumped to the surface by James Watt & Co-designed steam-engines and shipped out to sea on barges loaded to the gunwales.

Gotto’s partial separation design proved insufficient to cope with Rio’s heavy rains. Manholes overflowed and galleries released sewage directly into the bay during downpours. But it represented a vast improvement on the previous model and rendered Rio only the second capital in the world after London to boast a modern sewage network.

British-designed sewage systems were subsequently built in other Brazilian cities, from Santos and São Paulo to Recife, but access to sanitation remains one of the country’s principal infrastructure challenges. Only 48% of Brazilian residences currently enjoy sewage collection and only 37.5% of the collected waste is treated.

If Guanabara Bay is to justify its reputation as ‘The Bay of All Delights, The Bay of All Beauties’, as Hermann Melville dubbed it, (and Brazil its association with the idyllic, mythical Irish island of Hy Brasil to which it may owe its name), it needs to seize the opportunity offered by the Olympics to overhaul its shamefully inadequate sanitation systems. The city has spent considerable sums in recent years on the construction of lavish museums in a bid to bolster its image as a global cultural capital. But as someone once said, “A sewage system is a thing of more beauty than a painting by Raphael”.