Rio Olympics, Something Stinks As One-Year Sprint Begins

The 2016 Summer Olympic Games start next Aug. 5 in Rio de Janeiro with too many projects behind schedule. One particular environmental hurdle looks insurmountable.

Construction site of the Olympic and Paralympic Village in Rio de Janeiro on July 21
Construction site of the Olympic and Paralympic Village in Rio de Janeiro on July 21


RIO DE JANEIRO â€" The one-year countdown to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, slated to be held between Aug. 5-21, 2016, has finally now begun. This is a special week for Brazil, and the president of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach is in Rio to take part in the celebration and assess the work done so far â€" and that which still needs to be done.

Organizing the Olympics is an incomparable challenge, requiring hard work and precise planning, seemingly unlimited financial resources and the sacrifices of many in order to pull off the singular international sporting event. Is it all worth it? Whatever your answer, it is bound to be debated, especially at a time when Brazil’s economy is shrinking and its inflation skyrocketing.

Was last year’s World Cup worth it? It was without a doubt an unforgettable celebration â€" for Brazilians as well as for foreign visitors â€" but it left white elephants behind in the shape of unused stadiums and huge debts to be paid off for years to come.

The focus now, exactly as it was one year before the kickoff of the 2014 World Cup, is the sheer amount of work that still needs to be done before the Games begin. Senior International Olympic Committee officials, including president Bach, have already alerted the authorities to the fact that there was no time to lose. One official went as far as saying that the sites wouldn’t be ready until the night before the opening ceremony.

Whether or not that was an exaggeration, the level of activity on the immense working sites has reached its peak. But the mystery of when it will all be ready rests with the contractors, many of them well-known and well-respected, others now engulfed in the “Lava Jato” federal investigation into money laundering allegations at Petrobras.

According to the latest budget estimations, the Rio Games will cost 38.2 billion reais ($11 billion), though this isn’t the final count. Brazil’s Olympic Public Authority, whose job is it to audit and coordinate the actions of the three ministries involved and the organizing committee, as well as responsible for revealing the spending figures, will still need to reassess the costs. And not only is every announcement made later than planned, but each release also shows the spending figures going up. To make matters worse, the authority can’t seem to retain any of its presidents for long, even though they’re directly named by the Brazilian President herself, Dilma Rousseff.

Obstacle course

The construction projects and the budget are however only part of the problems surrounding the Olympics. The Federal Court of Accounts last week published a report criticizing the accumulation of responsibilities for Carlos Arthur Nuzman, president of the Brazilian Olympic Committee and of the Organizing Committee for the Rio 2016 Games. These “conflicts of interests” risk raising costs to public coffers, the report warned, as well as causing unnecessary controversy. Nuzman dismisses the accusation, arguing he doesn’t have the power alone to make decisions.

Because of the nature and scale of the Games, the preparations have come with all sorts of obstacles. Some of these issues took the organizers by surprise, like for example the disease that’s threatening the equestrian sector in Rio. Other challenges find their origin in the years of negligence that have, in the case of the pollution of the Guanabara Bay, prevented any solution from materializing. These are serious and urgent matters that require commitment and action from all parties involved.

The pollution in Guanabara Bay is a well-known issue, and one that the successive governments in the Rio de Janeiro state have been ignoring for years. With time running out, it’s now become unfeasible for the authorities to find a solution and offer clean water to the athletes who’ll be competing for medals â€" something that will reflect very badly on the city’s image, although officials seem more worried about financial losses.

The Associated Press has recently reported on the worrying levels of pollution, reporting that athletes will be competing in waters that are so polluted with waste and human feces that they risk falling ill.

In such a disturbing context, the news that a horse was diagnosed with glanders, an incurable disease that makes it compulsory to sacrifice contaminated animals, sent alarm bells ringing in the Deodoro region, the suburban area where the horse-riding competitions are scheduled to take place.

Despite all the controversy, Carlos Arthur Nuzman still sounds and looks as optimistic as ever. In a recent essay, he writes that great competitions are usually won by those who want it the most, particularly by those who have the most determination in the home stretch. Is one year enough time for Rio?

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!