Dirty tap water has Rio residents on edge

Perrine Juan, Joshua Howat Berger
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In this file photo taken on January 15, 2020, a man buys bottled water at a liquor store in the Lapa neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro

First the water was dirty, then it was full of detergent: Rio de Janeiro residents have had some disturbing stuff coming out of their taps, the latest environmental bungle for Brazil.

The problem started a little over a month ago, with widespread complaints of stinky, brown tap water in the "Marvelous City," which is known for the breathtaking beauty of its beaches, but also a history of polluting and mismanaging its water.

The public water utility, a much-maligned company called Cedae, said the issue was a harmless organic compound called geosmin. It fired the head of the city's main water treatment plant, used carbon particles to reduce the geosmin and assured the greater metropolitan area's 12 million inhabitants their water was safe to drink.

But then it had to make another embarrassing announcement Monday: high levels of detergent from an unknown source had been found in the same water treatment plant, forcing authorities to shut it down.

The plant, known as Guandu, serves nine million people. The 13-hour shut-down left large swathes of the city with no tap water, in the middle of a sweltering southern-hemisphere summer.

As panic buying has set in, bottled water suppliers have struggled to keep up with demand.

"Deliveries have quadrupled. And everyone wants water right this minute," said Luciana de Barbosa de Jesus, owner of a wholesale supplier in the city center, as her delivery staff rushed to fill trucks and bicycle carts with huge orders of bottles and jugs.

- Schools closed, carnival questioned -

The water shut-off forced authorities to push the start of the school year back from Wednesday to Thursday for more than 1,500 public schools.

It has also raised concerns about the city's world-famous carnival in two weeks' time, when some two million tourists will flock to Rio.

"If we don't solve this problem fast, we could be holding carnival with a shortage of bottled water, forcing people to drink (tap) water that might not be safe," said Leonardo Do Santos, a 38-year-old banker, as he stocked up on water in the central business district.

Bottled water is already becoming hard to find.

Many supermarkets have run out or are limiting customers' purchases. On the street, vendors have as much as tripled the price of a 1.5-liter bottle, to six reals (nearly $1.50).

Residents are even turning to bottled water in the city's poorest neighborhoods, the favelas, despite the economic sacrifice.

"A lot of people are buying bottled water here. They're already running out of 20-liter jugs in some places," said Helio, a resident of the sprawling Mare favela.

- Politics and punchlines -

It is the latest bad environmental PR for Brazil, home to the world's largest freshwater supply and 60 percent of the vital Amazon rainforest, where deforestation nearly doubled last year.

Environmentalists accuse far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, a climate-change skeptic, of attacking the Amazon with his pro-business, pro-farming policies.

Rio de Janeiro state Governor Wilson Witzel, a fellow far-right politician, now faces similar criticism for his management of Cedae, which he wants to privatize.

Critics accuse the governor of dismantling the utility to pave the way for privatization.

The state's environmental regulator announced Wednesday it had fined Cedae 100,000 reals for failing to disclose test results on geosmin levels at the Guandu plant.

Cedae told AFP it had asked for an extension to complete the tests.

"The water supplied by Cedae meets health ministry standards and is therefore safe to drink," it said in an email.

The utility's problems are not new, said ecologist Mario Moscatelli, who has been urging authorities since the 1990s to deal with massive amounts of raw sewage dumped just upstream from the Guandu plant.

"That situation is inconceivable and unacceptable, anywhere in the universe," he told AFP.

Cedae did score a victory of sorts Wednesday, when environmental authorities ruled the mystery detergent found in the treatment plant did not exceed acceptable limits.

But the news did little to calm worried residents -- or stop a flood of jokes about the situation.

"Witzel found a 'smart' way to clean the water: add detergent," quipped one Twitter user.

"Now it comes out of the tap foaming, and we save on dish soap what we spend on bottled water."