When I was growing up in rainy old England, Rio de Janeiro was always presented as an exotic, beautiful location boasting miles of sun, sand and sea. Indeed, the authorities in Rio have previously gone to great lengths to beautify the city's oceanfront by removing billboards and other visual pollution.

But what about other forms of pollution?

With the 2016 Olympics coming up fast there's been a lot of focus on the waters of Rio's Guanabara Bay, a location which will play host to Olympic events. A sailing test in August reportedly saw Australian Olympic champion Nathan Outteridge colliding with a dead dog, while other competitors reported having to steer clear of cat carcasses, rats and other detritus. And while competitors have been raising concerns for some time, as reported over at Yahoo News, those concerns are now reaching a new volume with the discovery by researchers of drug resistant "superbugs" in the bay:

Brazilian scientists have discovered antibiotic-resistant super-bacteria thought to emanate from hospital waste in the latest bad news for the polluted bay that will host sailing events at the 2016 Olympics. Contact with the bacteria, which was found at three locations in a river feeding Guanabara Bay, could cause infections that require hospitalization, said microbiologist Ana Paula d'Alincourt, who led the study by the Oswaldo Cruz Institute.

Meanwhile the BBC reports that while officials admit that they will miss the target of an 80 percent cleanup by the time of the Olympics, there are no plans to move sailing events to a different location. Instead, organizers will focus their efforts on removing debris and other obstructions from the immediate vicinity of the five sailing courses to ensure that the events themselves can go on unimpeded.

Of course, the long-term challenge of what to do about Guanabara Bay remains urgent but daunting. While the government has deployed "eco-boats" charged with scooping up waste and removing it for recycling/disposal, many groups are rejecting these literally "end-of-pipe" solutions in favor of a more comprehensive, systemic approach to curbing pollution. In a city where as much as 70 percent of waste ends up in the bay, such an approach must include upgrading sewers and sewage treatment facilities, reducing litter and plastic pollution, and increasing recycling rates.

One group pushing for such measures is the Dutch Plastic Soup Foundation, a consortium of stakeholders from the Netherlands who are committed to helping Rio de Janeiro meet its targets and clean its waters through a project it is promoting as Project Clean Bay:

Project CLEAN BAY consists of four major parts

  1. An extensive education and participation program for the citizens of the Rio area with an incentive based approach, based on the very successful rehabilitation of the historic river Estero de Paco in Manila in 2009.
  2. A well organized (plastic) waste collection and recycling grid.
  3. Sewage water treatment system for all 55 watercourses.
  4. An extensive clean-up of the Guanabara Bay.

With time running out before the Olympics begin, it remains to be seen whether Project Clean Bay and others like it can make a significant impact before the big event. Yet with the eyes of the world on Rio and its waters, it may be the perfect time to secure meaningful, lasting action to improve Guanabara Bay and leave a lasting legacy for the 2016 games.

And if you are wondering just how bad the water really can be, take a look at this BBC report from earlier in the year.