By Noelle Wyman Roth
A few weeks ago, we described how to find out more about pollution near where you live, work, and play. Pollution is the inevitable result of human impact (although the degree may vary) in any area. In addition to negatively affecting the flora and fauna, development may also adversely impact human health—often in the form of hazardous waste sites, like the federal Superfund program seeks to clean up. As much of the world becomes more developed, and as many contaminants migrate across the globe, the pollution problem is a global concern.
Today we’re thinking about this problem in a different context: over the past two weeks, the world’s attention has been turned to Sochi during the Winter Olympics. The Sochi Games have been no stranger to controversy, on topics ranging from gay rights in Russia, to unfinished hotels, to Sochi’s stray dogs, to improper disposal of construction waste. Water quality in Sochi has been the brunt of internet jokes; as journalists arrived in Sochi two weeks ago, one posted this picture of “dangerous face water.”
Now that the Olympics have ended, Olympians are headed home to their respective countries. International media will board planes, and interest in Sochi will inevitably fade. But for the people that live in Sochi and the surrounding areas, their daily lives will likely continue to be affected by the Games. What is the lasting environmental health impact for these people?
Upon winning their bid to host the Olympics, Russia needed to transform Sochi from an underdeveloped resort town to Olympic host city. Yet the same reasons Sochi and the surrounding areas were chosen to host the winter Olympics make them the most vulnerable to its impact. Sochi is located near the Western Caucasus, a UNESCO World Heritage site recognized for its pristine and unique ecosystems; in fact, UNESCO believes this area may be the only large mountain in Europe be largely untouched by human impacts.
Sochi National Park and the Caucasian State Biosphere Reserve are both located within the Western Caucasus, and are home to numerous endemic species. The Caucasian wisent originated from the Caucasus (though only hybrids now survive), a native rhododendron grows prolifically above the tree line, and Russia is working to reintroduce Persian leopards to the region.
Initially, Russia had promised to make these Olympic Games “zero waste.” As construction in and near Sochi progressed, however, stories emerged that made it clear that Russia’s goal had fallen short. Construction to ready Sochi for the Olympics took a heavy toll on these conservation areas. Numerous stories in the Western media have chronicled the environmental impact (even calling into question the presumed success of Putin’s Persian leopard project). The stories allege that construction waste has been dumped into the protected areas, diminished air quality, resulted in deforestation, and contaminated drinking water in Sochi and outlying villages. These problems will persist past the Games, as will the risk they pose to the people that live in the region.
Looking forward: in a little over 2 years, Rio’s Guanabara Bay will host rowing and sailing events. The Bay has suffered extensive environmental damage in recent decades. One of the world’s largest landfills (now closed), Jardim Gramacho, is located adjacent to Guanabara. In addition to being riddled with garbage, the majority of Rio’s sewage is untreated and flows into the bay. Research indicates that sediments in Guanabara Bay are toxic to aquatic life.
Sailors who have visited Guanabara Bay have recently expressed concerns about risk posed to their health, but locals have been living with that risk for years. Many of the eight million residents in the cities around Guanabara Bay live in undeveloped conditions, including lack of sanitation and poor housing, that threaten their health.
Brazilian officials have promised to clean up the Bay ahead of the Olympics, reducing the pollution by 80%. “Eco boats” have been removing garbage, but a plan to treat raw sewage has yet to be articulated. Already advocates have expressed concerns that current efforts to clean up the Bay ahead of the Olympics will falter in the long run.
The International Olympic Committee has a written commitment to sustainable development and environmental legacies (though little control over host countries’ practices). Ahead of the 2016 summer games in Rio de Janeiro, Olympic organizers have an opportunity to embody those goals and improve environmental health.
These problems certainly aren’t unique to host cities. And so the million (or maybe billion) dollar question is: how do we balance preservation and advancement without contributing to a legacy of pollution? Whether an Olympic host city or not, this is a tough, complex, and often costly question to answer.
The Olympics Games are an incredible opportunity to be a rising tide that lifts all boats in any host city, demonstrating how a city can balance preservation and development, as well as improve quality of life and environmental health.