On her first visit to Brazil, Martha Reddington said she wouldn’t be visiting any of Rio de Janeiro’s beaches. The Nevada native, who said she keeps close tabs on water-safety reports being published for the area, isn’t willing to take a risk with the water at the beaches or in her hotel.
“If I can’t put my head under (the water at the beach), I’m not putting my body in the water at all,” Reddington said. “I’m only drinking bottled water. I won’t even drink from the faucets at the hotel. I’m just not going to risk it.”
The Associated Press reported levels of bacteria and viruses so high that swallowing just three teaspoons of water from Guanabara Bay was likely to lead to severe stomach and respiratory illnesses. Concentrations of adenoviruses were said to be thousands of times higher than the levels considered safe in the US or Europe.
But water quality in Rio de Janeiro is an ongoing issue beyond anything confronting the sailors, rowers and swimmers during these Olympic games. The favelas, known as the slums of Brazil, house nearly one-third of the Brazilian population, and within these communities is a water debacle that affects its residents each and every day.
From its origins 70 or more years ago right up to the present day, the homes of 20,000 residents Pavão-Pavãozinho remain illegal. Access to filtered water in favela is nearly unheard of, but within the bustling city below the mountain, residents there are still not so certain about what causes their water to be undrinkable without a filter.
Inside the favelas
João Jiton Batista Rainha goes two-to-three days each week without access to running water in his home. The 20-year-old newlywed has lived in Pavão-Pavãozinho, one of Rio de Janeiro’s larger favelas, for just four months, but he’s already resorted to buying bottled water — an expense he said he’s not sure he can afford to take on much longer.
“When I first came here, I thought I would try drinking the water that comes from my sink since it is free that way,” Rainha said. “But after a few days, I started to get nauseous, and I now have bad stomach problems. I can’t drink water now unless it’s from bottles because I don’t have a filter to do it on my own. It’s very, very expensive – sometimes more than 300 reais.” This would be about equivalent to $100.
After getting sick, Rainha looked for aid from his sister, who works at a nearby water treatment center. He had his sister test the water from his faucet, and Rainha said he was able to get results immediately.
The verdict, he said, was not good. The test came back “very, very bad,” and he was advised not to drink anything that came from a tap. He does not know why the water is undrinkable nor does he know anyone who he can tell in exchange for assistance.
“Some people here have water filters they can hook to their water lines, but I don’t have enough money for that — I might not ever have enough money for that,” Rainha said. “For now, I’m going to just cook and bathe in the water and try to buy as much water as I can. That’s all I know I can do for now.”
Although he moved to Rio for the “better economic opportunities” that the city offers, Rainha said the price of bottled water he and his wife need for a week can take up to half of what he gets paid each week as a woodworker — and Rainha is not alone. The impoverished favelas, or neighborhoods, scattered atop the city’s hills and mountains often lack basic access to filtered water.
Gabriel Abreu, a resident within the favela, said the water filters are basic commodities outside of the favela communities, but inside, he’s one of the only locals to own one.
“You don’t see these very often around here,” Abreu said while tapping his water filter above his kitchen sink. “Other people in this community have to collect their water from the city’s supply to the (water) tower, and they’re usually sharing that water source with about 15 other people.”
On the roofs of the living structures within the favela are large, blue holding tanks that store a supply of water for when the residents inside. Unfiltered water is pumped up from the city through plastic pipes and throughout the favela into the tanks. As the water from the tanks is used, a floating water bobber senses a drop in water level and fills the tank when the water supply is too low.
However, the tanks on top of houses are big enough to hold seven days of water, and with high demand for water in the favela, the pump to push water through the pipes frequently breaks. The repair time can take up to three days, and the breakage is sometimes a weekly occurrence.
“It’s chaos when the pump goes down,” Rainha said. “I used to use water all the time for day-to-day things, but sometimes it takes several days for the pump to get fixed, so I would have to ask my neighbors for water just to cook food or try to take a shower.”
Conserving water is an important practice for both Rainha and Abreu. Rainha stores water in large bottle during the week when the water is running to add to his reserve tank in the event of an outage, and Abreu sad he installed a second water storage tank for emergency usage.
In addition to a lack of filtered water, sanitary services like plumbing and garbage pickup are also rarely heard of, leading to disease-producing pollution in the labyrinth-like walkways within the hillside residencies, especially leptospirosis, an infection transmitted by rodent urine.
The potholes in the favela’s streets allow sewage to flow through open canals that haven’t been cleaned in years, Abrue said, and they overflow every time there is a strong rain.
“In the streets, people will hook up their water lines and drain their sinks or their washing machines, and it’s really a way to flow out the water waste,” Abrue said. “There are so many ways that water affects each day of life for the people who live in the (favela) community, but (the water) is usually not ever clean here, so that situation with that isn’t very good.”
While Abreu said he believes the government investment in water systems and sewage treatment is inadequate, he acknowledged what has been done so far to try and accommodate the needs of the residents there. In 2009, a new water tower was built to replace an old one, and recently, city initiatives in Rio have tried to make access to filters easier.
“It’s not terrible, but it could be a lot better,” Abrue said. “People are making it work, and everyone wants to help each other out, so even though the water might not be good for people here, they’re going to help one another to make sure somehow they’re getting what they need. That’s how this community works.”
Story continues after video.
In the city
Just below the Pavão-Pavãozinho mountain is one of Rio de Janeiro’s most expensive Copacabana neighborhoods. There, the Pura Vida hostel is nuzzled just below the entrance to the favela community.
Hostel owner Dalton Xavier Neto finds water quality in his building to be of particular importance, ensuring that water filters are connected to each faucet tap, meaning drinkable water is accessible anywhere in the hostel.
“I can’t say we’re the only hostel that has the filters on all the taps, but I do know there aren’t many,” Neto said. “It makes it much easier, much safer, for the residents staying here. No one has to worry about what’s safe to drink and what isn’t — everything here is good.”
The water that enters the hostel comes from the same city source as the water that enters the favelas and is safe to use for bathing and cooking. The implementation of the filters, however, ensures that the water is safe for consumption. The filters are changed every six months to a year as needed, Neto said.
The hostel has four water reservoirs, each of which are cleaned every three months, and the water in the tanks is filtered once it enters the hostel. Neto said there are rarely issues with the water’s cleanliness thanks to the filtration, but to conserve on the amount of water being used in the building, he’s emphasized shorter showers and attention to water consumption to his residents.
In the summers, however, Neto said the access to water can be extremely limited, if there’s any water available at all. During drought periods, when the area doesn’t get rain for two weeks or more, Neto said he’s resorted to hiring water trucks to bring water into the hostels reserve tanks.
“For the last few years, when there’s been a water crisis, we’ve had to find ways to keep the water here,” Neto said. “We have the backup tanks for reasons like that, but it’s not possible to run the hostel without water. We have to find safe ways around water issues like that.”
João Daltro, the owner of the nearby Meiai hostel in Botafogo, said he hasn’t had issues with the availability of water at his hostel, but he has had to pay attention to the filtration. Meiai does not attach filters to all taps, but residents can request filtered drinking water when needed.
“People who stay (at the hostel) don’t really ask many questions about the water,” Daltro said. “Really, I just get a few questions from American visitors about what water is safe and what isn’t, but Brazilians know not to drink the water — they just don’t do it.”
Daltro said the Meiai hostel undergoes an internal water cleansing once every six months to ensure that the flow and storage of water in the hostel is safe, and visitors are warned beforehand that access to water may be extremely limited during those times.
But like those living in the favelas, neither Neto nor Daltro knows why the unfiltered water is unsafe to drink. Daltro said he thinks it may be an imbalance in chemicals from the municipal water treatment center, but Neto believes it might be a contamination that comes after the fact.
“I think it might be the pipes that the water passes through, but I can’t say for sure,” Neto said. “If that’s the case, it seems like a simple fix: just change out the pipes, but I honestly don’t know. The municipality says that the water is drinkable, but we know that’s not true. That’s why the filters are so necessary.”
Casey Smith is a Ball State University student and writer for BSU at the Games, a group of 50 journalism students traveling from Muncie, Indiana, to Rio for the Olympic Games. Follow them at bsuatthegames.com, @bsuatthegames on Twitter and Instagram, and BSU at the Games on Facebook.