Urban Jungle: Restoring Rio’s Water Supply

© Jeff Gale

Editor's note: This is the latest post in our “Urban Jungle” blog series.

Over the last month, millions of fans from all over the world looked toward Brazil, as teams from 32 countries and four continents have been battling for the title of 2014 World Cup champions.

This Sunday, the city of Rio de Janeiro will once again stage the final match— the first time since 1950. Back then, thousands of spectators reacted in astonishment when Brazil lost to Uruguay in the final match. This week, my generation experienced the same feeling after the seven goals scored by the German team in the semifinals. Sunday’s match will therefore be a stage for either the Germans or Argentineans to shine — may the best team win!

The city of Rio has changed a lot throughout the years. In the ’50s, the city was still the capital of Brazil (it’s since been moved to Brasilia) and its population was approximately 2 million. Today, this number has tripled.

During the last World Cup held in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro was in the midst of an urban revolution, with the opening of new avenues and construction of modern buildings downtown. The lack of water, however, was already a critical problem for the city due to deforestation in urban areas and a poor distribution system, and even inspired the lyrics of one of the most popular Carnival songs: “Rio de Janeiro / city that seduces us / during the day lacks water / during the night lacks energy.”

In response to the city’s water scarcity issues, Rio built the Guandu System, a mega project that continues to be the largest complex for water treatment and storage in Brazil. Upon its opening in 1955, the facility seemed to be the long-term solution. Today, however, the system has begun to show signs of exhaustion, and the city is having trouble providing water in sufficient quality and quantity for its current population.

For many cities, upstream forests are vital for maintaining drinking water supply for their millions of inhabitants. These forests act like a sponge, absorbing rainfall and slowly releasing it into rivers and streams. When these forests are cut down, rain erodes hillsides and rivers become clogged with sediment.

Conservation International has been working with the city of Rio de Janeiro to find innovative solutions to this problem. At a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in 2013, we announced the Water and Cities Initiative, an undertaking born of the common interest of the cities of Rio de Janeiro, Bogotá and Mexico City to unite their efforts to secure drinking water supply by protecting and restoring the cities’ watersheds.

Each city is implementing efforts for conservation, restoration and sustainable production to recover ecosystem services such as water purification, pollination and carbon sequestration, and is developing policies to address biodiversity loss.

Conservation International is supporting this work through specific projects:

  • In Bogotá, the city’s water supply company and local, regional and environmental authorities are conducting studies related to biodiversity, ecosystem services and environmental conflicts in order to formulate and implement projects that will restore and protect ecosystem services in the Chingaza-Sumapaz-Guerrero Conservation Corridor.
  • In Mexico City, the Water Forest initiative seeks to sustainably manage the watersheds that supply water to 23 million people in three cities, including Mexico City.
  • And in Rio de Janeiro, government agencies and local communities in the Guandu watershed are working together to create and implement public and private protected areas, restore forest and identify priority areas for water production. By now, more than 4,000 hectares (almost 9,900 acres) of forest have been protected; the goal is to restore an additional 3,000 hectares (more than 7,400 acres) of degraded lands.

Mexico and Colombia did surprisingly well during the World Cup this year, delighting the world with their joyful and offensive football. Now, together with Brazil, these three countries have a chance to show to the world that if we cannot be #1 in football this year we are, at least, walking hand in hand to overcome the challenges of water sustainability — surely a greater victory.

Rodrigo Medeiros is the vice president of Conservation International-Brazil.