Sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro

One of the main benefits of living in Rio de Janeiro is that you have access to all the resources and activities that a big city has to offer, while also having nature surrounding you. From my window I have a good view over Copacabana beach and the sea, Sugar Loaf Mountain and some other green hills. However, I came to realise how all that beauty is in danger. The blue waters look spectacular, but after a heavy rainfall waves bring the dirt to the surface and a big layer of foam covers the beach. The picturesque Lagoa (lagoon) is popular with joggers and the high-end cocktail-drinking crowd, of which only few are aware of the massive fish deaths that occurred over the past decades. In 2000, a sudden proliferation of algae probably originating from sewage depleted the oxygen levels in the water, causing the suffocation of 100 tons of fish.  This phenomenon re-occurred several times, 86 tons and 65 tons of fish were floating to the surface in 2010 and 2013, respectively. The only reason why more attention is being paid to this issue lately is because this same lagoon is going to host the rowing events in the Olympic Games of 2016.

Dead fish at Lagoa, Rio de janeiro


A horrible smell raises from 86 tons of dead fish that are floating to the surface of the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, Zona Sul, Rio de Janeiro.



From my point of view, a major positive side effect of Rio de Janeiro hosting mega-events like the World Cup and Olympic Games is the increase of international attention and pressure on the country to take care of business. Brazil tends to like its sovereignty and independence, evading part-taking in international policies where possible; yet, it is this international pressure that gives the country a push forward as it forces it to address some pressing issues concerning the environment, safety and transport.

The city of Rio de Janeiro grew fast, maybe too fast and too furious, without being ready to cope with and service for so many inhabitants. The systems that are in place are outdated, insufficient and sometimes simply abusive to its surroundings. Also the economy grew. Over the last five years, half of Brazil’s population that lived in poverty can now be counted as middle class. I dare to state that neither money nor resources are obstructing an efficient approach to deal with the environmental challenges, the main problem here is that Brazil is still stuck in a mindset of an underdeveloped country. There is a lack of long-term thinking and willingness to invest.

Yes, long-term thinking. I will give an example. Thanks to the Olympic committee who found Lagoa’s waters potentially dangerous for their athletes, cleaning up the heavily polluted waters around became high priority. The Lagoa and the notorious Ganabara Bay both have been subject to mass clean-up projects by CEDAE (Rio’s water and sewage company), some in partnership with the company EBX, Comlurb (Municipal Urban Cleaning Company) and Rio-Águas (Watershed Management Sub-Secretariat). However, cleaning activities thus far concentrated mainly on equipping catamarans to remove algae and solid waste. The executing parties try to look green by emphasising in the media that the collected cans and pet bottles are being recycled, petting themselves on the shoulder. Yet, these measurements are insignificant if they don’t follow up. Bottles and algae will both be back in a few years and the situation will be unchanged. It shows that more attention is being paid to easy Band-Aid solutions, instead of treating the problem at the root. According last years’ Associated Press report, nearly 70 percent of Rio de Janeiro’s sewers end up in open waters untreated. The report also mentions that the average fecal pollution of the waters that will host the Olympic Games is 78 times that of the Brazilian Governments’ satisfactory level. There are plans on the table to improve the sewage collection and treatment system around the Lagoa and Ganabara Bay, but those activities are not close to being executed yet. With the upcoming events there is a great momentum to work constructively on a more sustainable Rio de Janeiro. Let us just take care of focusing on the long-term solutions and not burn all the available funds on constant dredging.

Yes, willingness to invest. Let me illustrate that with a whole different example. Working in the rental business, I found that Brazilians in general are reluctant to invest in their property. Most problems are fixed in the most economical way possible, which often results in an overcharged electrical network, piping systems full of weak spots and outdated interior. It seems to be a mentality that does not acknowledge the added value of making an investment. Not only is a renovated property more pleasant to live in, it brings back money by being easier to rent out, being lower in maintenance and reparation costs, and being more energy- efficient. This can be a metaphor for the Brazilian society. Currently, Rio de Janeiro is like a patched up apartment that would benefit some drastic renovations. The scissors, tie-wraps and duct-tape need to be thrown away and be exchanged for expertise, proper materials and tools. We need to stop to paint over the weak spots in the wall, to make to keep Rio the Janeiro the true Cidade Maravilhosa that it is.

Do you have another idea about the recent developments in Rio de Janeiro? What do you think are ecological consequences of the Olympic Games? Share your vision by reacting on the blog post!


  1. “In an attempt to ease the environmental licensing process for construction projects associated with the World Cup and Olympics, the federal government created the Environmental Working Group, theoretically with the function of proposing and coordinating “environmentally sustainable” policies. In practice, the group has tried to simplify and accelerate legal procedures, creating exceptions for the licensing of projects related to the mega-events and considered to be of “critical public interest””. (p.26).

    1. What do you think of the argument presented by the “National Coalition of local committees for a people’s World Cup and Olympics” in 2012? What is the value of the international attention/pressure accompanying the World Cup and Olympics, if the same tournaments ensure unsustainable building practices by simplifying legal procedures?

    2. Do you think there is a relation between the forced evictions of an estimated 170.000 people in preparation of the 2 events and the reluctance to invest in property? A government that does not adhere to its own laws might disencourage private investments.

    “Evictions fail to respect the right to land, guaranteed by international treaties signed by
    Brazil, by the Federal Constitution of 1988, by the Statute of the City (federal law 10.257/2001) and also by various state and municipal laws. Insecurity and fear are the common fate of the populations in jeopardy of eviction, thanks to the lack of information, the dissemination of false and contradictory information, threats, misleading advertisements, and rumors, coming from the media as well as from the government itself. Political and psychological pressure, suspension of public services, and extrajudicial and physical restraints on residents combine to form a daily experience marked by permanent violence”. (p.8).

  2. Hi Michel,
    Thank you for you comments and questions. They are right on, the World Cup and Olympics have a lot of controversial points among others the forced evictions and unsafe building practices. I’ll answer your questions in reverse order: 2) The forced evictions are simply outrageous. People are kicked out because there is not enough accommodation to house the ten thousands of tourist that will be visiting Rio. I definitely think this is related to the real estate prices the moment that are equally outrageous, the sudden demand for housing in the area drove the prices up enormously. It is nearly impossible for ‘normal people’ to buy a property, and even people that have the money have to think twice before buying because the market seems to be a huge bubble. So yes, I do think there is a relation between the evictions and the reluctance to buy, but not to the reluctance to make renovations on property they already own. This seems to be an old custom and the standard rater then a situation they are forced into. 1) A ‘People’s World Cup’ sounds great but I don’t believe in the execution at this moment. Unfortunately the country is still very disorganized and corruption is everywhere. Yet, with this article, I tried to highlight one positive side-effect that I see the mega-events have: The international attention and pressure force the government to do something about environmental problems such as water pollution that otherwise would not be addressed. It can not be denied that there is a momentum now, and I would so much love to see this being used to actually build something good. Something that lasts.

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