Soaring mountains, beautiful beaches, picturesque vistas and Carnaval – that is Rio de Janeiro. I am sure that Olympic organizers were picturing this Rio, not mosquito-borne diseases and sewage-infested waterways, when the city was awarded the 2016 Summer Olympics. I never thought water quality reports would be a focus of ESPN, but that is the reality with the 2016 Olympics, which kick off next month.
By now, the state of Rio’s waterways are well documented. The Associated Press (AP) conducted tests that show the water at various locations where competitions will take place contained viruses that cause stomach ailments, respiratory problems and even heart and brain inflammation at 1.7 million times the levels that would cause alarm in the U.S. or Europe. The AP also found that bacterial fecal coliforms at a competitive site were over 16 times the legal limit in Brazil, a standard that is far more lax than what exists in the U.S. or Europe.
Rio’s problems, put simply, stem from insufficient sewage treatment capacity. Untreated raw sewage is flowing into waterways because the sewage system is overwhelmed. For water treatment professionals the world over, this is not an unusual problem. While the situation in Rio is worse than what we are used to dealing with in the U.S. and Europe, lessons learned here could easily be applied there.
Some intrepid Europeans are already trying. A consortium of Dutch companies, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations have created the “Clean Urban Delta” initiative in an attempt to bring low-cost solutions to Rio de Janeiro’s water problems. They have proposed bringing in proven techniques as well as piloting innovative solutions. Their proposals include using “constructed wetlands” to treat sewage in place in areas in which it is unrealistic to pipe it out and using barriers and screens to prevent solids from making their way into important waterways.
The Dutch involved in the initiative are already talking about this example serving as a model for cleanup in other parts of the world. It is a magnanimous way of creating economic development, as the Dutch companies involved will benefit in a myriad of ways, as will the citizens of Brazil, if these programs find adequate financing. Should the Dutch model prove successful, I am certain we will see other global water technology hubs trying it out.
However, there is no need to wait. Teaming with funders to tackle problems close to home can be a mutually beneficial opportunity for companies and communities alike. Companies can pioneer innovative techniques or apply existing technology in a new way while benefiting an under-served community in need of assistance. There is a growing roster of potential funders, including private foundations and non-profits, with the means to foster exactly these kinds of opportunities.
Whether you are ready to tackle a problem of national significance or you have a solution that can improve the lives of a few hundred residents of a small community, getting creative about your funding collaborators can help you get to work.