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FEATURE Rio's polluted waters present environmental threat to Olympics By Isaac Risco and Georg Ismar, dpa

Europe
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Athletes competing in Rio‘s filthy waters may have to contend with dead fish, floating sofas and flesh-eating bacteria.

Rio de Janeiro (dpa) - The stench immediately rises as Mario Moscatelli pokes his paddle to the bottom of one of the lagoons around Rio de Janeiro, host city of the Olympic Games.

"This water is totally polluted," the Brazilian biologist explains as his motorboat moves toward Tijuca Lagoon, near the Olympic Park in the western Rio neighbourhood of Tijuca.

Jacarepagua Lagoon, a few hundred meters from the Olympic sites, is polluted with "waste water and garbage," Moscatelli says.

The contaminated waters stretch to Guanabara Bay, the venue site for Olympic sailing starting August 5.

Environmental degredation has been a longstanding problem for Rio, a city that promised a perfect, natural environment as the host site for the global sporting event. The surrounding mountains and lush greenery of a city that sits on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean makes the Brazilian metropolis one of the world‘s most picturesque cities.

Those postcard-perfect images come in stark contrast to the pictures of thousands of dead fish floating in the waters of Guanabara Bay and Rodrigo Freitas Lagoon, where Olympic competitions will take place.

All types of raw effluent can be found in the city‘s bays, with Moscatelli showing off a half-submerged couch in the lagoons of Tijuca, which sit close to the favela of Rio das Pedras.

Rio‘s polluted waters are a consequence of the city‘s feckless growth since the middle of the 20th century, with woeful infrastructure planning leaving huge shortfalls in water treatment.

Brazil promised to clean up 80 per cent of Guanabara Bay and make it one of the emblematic sites of the Games when Rio won the right to host.

"It was the most flagrant of all the broken promises," Moscatelli told O Globo newspaper.

It is estimated that 93 Olympic-size pools of sewage water from Rio‘s surrounding areas - with a population of 6.5 million people - flow through the bay every day. Only 50 per cent of that matter is reportedly treated.

Moscatelli has been protesting the failed promises to clean up Rio‘s waters for more than 20 years.

"The authorities promised it would be one of the environmental legacies," the 52-year-old biologist said.

The polluted waterways have generated a lot of concern for athletes competing in Rio.

"We‘re taking supplements, getting vaccinated, and we‘ll be rinsing ourselves off in the showers on the boats," German sailor Ferdinand Gerz, who will compete in the 470 class, said of his team‘s plans to combat pollution exposures.

German sailor Erik Heil contracted MRSA - a flesh-eating bacteria - in his foot and hip after a visit last year to Brazil. His doctors point to his participation in test events at Guanabara Bay as the likely culprit.

Moscatelli thinks all athletes should get vaccinated against hepatitis A and take precautions to avoid catching other viruses, such as gastroenteritis and conjunctivitis.

But avoiding health problems in Rio looks to also come down to improvization, because the hosts have been unable to keep their environmental promises.

The bay has a limited system for keeping sewage water out of the Marina de Gloria, the starting point for Olympic sailing events.

Every day of the Games a helicopter will monitor marina currents so 12 "eco-boats" can scoop up as much garbage from the water as possible. A spokesman for Rio 2016 said 17 barriers will be put up to limit the amount of residue that drifts in.

Moscatelli complains these are merely "palliative measures." He biologist feels corruption and wasteful resource management are largely to blame for the environmental fiasco.

There has been no lack of international help, either; the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) approved a loan of more than 450 million dollars in 2011 for cleaning up the bay in time for the Games.

For the Rio 2016 water events to actually succeed will depend on the weather, according to Moscatelli.

"If the tide is high and it‘s sunny out, things will go well because the garbage will settle along the floor" of Tijuca Lagoon, he says.

But Moscatelli warns things could go badly "if there is wind and rain" to stir up the waste.

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