The Estado do São Paulo, or Estadão, is a broadsheet newspaper with the second highest circulation in São Paulo (and fifth in Brazil), so it’s a serious source of news here in Brazil. However, when the following popped up on my Twitter feed I seriously started to doubt its credentials.
But no, when I clicked on the link it proved to be a genuine tweet that linked to a story on the Estadão website, a story which had the following tagline:
“Em três anos, o Rio Tietê terá passeios de bateau mouche como os do Rio Sena, de Paris, segundo o governador Geraldo Alckmin.””Within three years the River Tietê will have boats tours like the River Seine in Paris, according to governor Geraldo Alckmin.”
“Hang on a minute then,” I pondered, “am I missing something here?”
Because how could this story be true? Had I dreamt that the Tietê, a river that I live just over a mile away from, usually looks like this?
Tourist boats and marine life within three years? Mr Alckmin must be some optimist.
Because, let’s be frank about this, anyone who’s been to São Paulo knows that the Tietê basically smells of poo.
The worst section of this shit-infested open sewer, though you’d struggle to find any of it which holds any particular charm, is where its Pinheiros tributary runs past Vila Olimpia – this also happens to be the area I go to most days to teach English. The smell there is so bad that when I had a heavy cold a couple of months ago the Pinheiros had the remarkable feat of being the only thing that I could smell.
And it’s perfume has been particularly redolent this past week due to a combination of heavy rain and scorching heat – the rain washes all the crap downstream whilst the sun and heat get to work on letting it fester.
Can you imagine what raw sewage smells like when the temperature hovers around 35c for a week?
No, it’s best not to.
How then, could Alckmin promise to solve the problem within three years? Well, further analysis (Googling) suggests that perhaps I shouldn’t be all too doom and gloom after all.
For a start, the Tietê’s not the first, and it certainly won’t be the last, polluted river in the world. For example, London in 1858, at the peak of industrialisation, also became known as ‘The Great Stink’ due to the stench of raw sewage that emanated from the River Thames, and as recently as fifty years ago the Thames itself was declared ‘biologically dead’. Yet today’s Thames is the cleanest river that runs through a major city – so clean in fact that in 2006 a Northern Bottlenose Whale got lost and swam right up it into Central London.
So, whose to say that the Tietê can’t also be turned around? For a start, it has a shorter history of pollution than the Thames – my wife’s grandfather can remember a time when people rowed boats down it, and it’s also claimed that marine life was present as recently as the 1960s.
The problems started during the mid-twentieth century when São Paulo saw its own period of rapid urban growth and industrialisation. However, public opinion on the issue only heightened when a radio programme called “The Meeting of the Rivers” compared the Tietê with the Thames. 1.2 million signatures on a petition later and the state saw fit to launch Project Tietê, a project whose goal was to rid São Paulo of its eggy odour.
Unfortunately, in typical Brazilian fashion, this was twenty years ago and, as I’ve already observed, the Tietê still very much smells of poo. As recently as two years ago the Estadão reported that 33 neighbourhoods in the city were still pumping sewage into the river.
Nevertheless, let’s give credit where credit may possibly be due. Where only 24% of sewage in the Tietê was treated in the 1990s, today it’s apparently closer to 70%, and the latest Estadão article states that a 2.2km pipe is in the process of being installed to collect even more of São Paulo’s poo.
Maybe, just maybe then the Tietê will one day be shit-free, although the target of 2015 looks highly optimistic and more like political spin ahead of the World Cup, Olympics and various elections. Additionally, I’m sure that Paulistanos, skeptical of what their politicians promise but rarely deliver, will wait to see the end product before passing judgement.
But tourist boats? Really?
I think there’s one thing that Mr Alckmin is missing here and this is that when you get a boat down the Seine or Thames you can pass by the Eiffel Tower or Houses of Parliament, whilst all you’ll find either side of the Tiete are concrete banks, weeds and six lanes of congested traffic. So, whilst cleaning up the river is undoubtedly a noble cause, let’s not get too carried away eh?