Water provision in Rio de Janeiro is a serious problem, both with respect to low quality for consumption by the inhabitants and the shortage during hot months and drought seasons, and the issue has worsened in recent years.
For our visitors, it’s important to know that not all places in the city are supplied with piped drinking water, and not all houses and businesses have sewage collection. Furthermore, the distribution of water in Rio de Janeiro is quite uneven, and some locations will go a long time without water being regularly supplied.
Water collection, treatment and distribution in Rio de Janeiro and other cities nearby is a responsibility of the government, and the job is executed through a public company called CEDAE (Companhia Estadual de Água e Esgoto, or State Company for Water and Sewerage in English), which also handles the collection and treatment of sewage.
Sewage Treatment and Water in Rio de Janeiro
Barra da Tijuca, Recreio dos Bandeirantes and Jacarepaguá are neighborhoods where the complete sewage system is still being implemented. For many decades, the solution to water supply and sewage in the region was the use of artesian wells and septic tanks, built by residents on their own properties.
Since May 2012, the city of Rio de Janeiro has taken over, through licensee Foz Águas 5 (Foz Waters 5), the collection and treatment of sewage services in an area comprising 21 districts in the western area of the city, including Bangu, Campo Grande, Campo dos Afonsos, Deodoro, Gericinó, Guaratiba, Inhoaíba, Paciência, Padre Miguel, Pedra de Guaratiba, Realengo, Santa Cruz and Vila Militar.
The licensee’s main task is to implement the public sewerage system, to which the residents of those neighborhoods will have their homes connected, and then having the collection carried out by the system, which will lead to proper treatment of sewage before it’s thrown, among other places, into the Guanabara and Sepetiba bays. The full implementation of the system will be a breakthrough for both the pollution of Guanabara Bay and the entire water system of Rio de Janeiro.
Currently, only 5% of the sewage produced in the region is treated. That means that all the untreated sewage is thrown directly into waterways, contaminating the waters of the rivers and therefore flowing, untreated as it is, into the sea. It’s also the case in Rocinha, where 50% of the sewage is dumped directly into storm drains.
Quality of Water at Rio’s Beaches
That causes the environmental pollution of rivers, water tables and even beaches, including Copacabana Beach and Ipanema Beach, which often become unsuitable for bathing because of the high level of contamination as a result of the untreated sewage being dumped there.
Before going to the beach, both locals and visitors are advised to check which ones are suitable for bathing and to avoid those that are inadequate – or at least avoid getting into the sea. With that, it’s possible to avoid contamination and unpleasant diseases that can bring the vacation to an early end.
According to INEA (Instituto Estadual do Ambiente, or State Environmental Institute in English), any beach whose last test result exceeds 2,500 thermotolerant coliforms MPN/100ml, or if in the last five campaigns there has been two or more results higher than 1,000 thermotolerant coliforms MPN/100 ml, is deemed to be improper.
It’s strongly recommended to avoid bathing in the sea in the first 24 hours after rainfall, or near the exit of any rainwater gallery or drainage channels.
Check the daily for conditions of the beaches.
Drinking Water in Rio de Janeiro: Consumption and Cooking
Low water quality in Rio de Janeiro is a problem that affects both locals and tourists, either because of the issue of the beaches or when, for instance, they consume water for drinking or cooking without it being previously filtered. We strongly recommend you do not consume water directly from the tap for drinking and, if possible, for cooking, wherever you are in Rio.
Unlike other places in the world where you just turn on the tap and drink water, in Rio de Janeiro you must filter it first to ensure that it’s safe for consumption.
When in doubt, the best way is to consume mineral water bought in sealed packaging (to ensure that it’s not a reused bottle and filled with tap water). Clean drinking water bottles are easily found in supermarkets and drug stores, and cost between R$ 2.10 and R$ 2.80 (1.5 liter). In general, in Rio de Janeiro the larger the quantity of water purchased, the less you will pay for it, and that way a 0.3-liter bottle can be sold for up to R$ 4.50, while a 20-liter bottle will cost you about R$ 8.
We recommend that you always carry a bottle of water in Rio with you when on outdoor excursions. Don’t feel embarrassed; that’s a common practice among locals, who are always buying their bottles from trusted stores throughout the day. However, be discreet, since large bottles are always linked to tourists.
Health in the Water of Rio de Janeiro
In a very general way, the locals don’t trust tap water. Therefore, fresh foods without previous treatment should be washed under clean water, filtered or boiled, otherwise they may be contaminated and lead to the same diseases that threaten those who consume non-potable water. In general, greens and vegetables are washed with reliable water at home and soaked for five minutes in an acidic solution with vinegar or other appropriate product, since, among other reasons, in the markets they are constantly wetted with tap water.
Regarding showering, the problem is swallowing water while rubbing yourself with soap. It’s certainly inevitable that this will happen, so the question is how much water you will swallow. The same goes for when you brush your teeth or do something like that. You mustn’t fall into a contamination paranoia, but just avoid excess.
The main problems caused by the consumption of non-potable water and by untreated sewage are infectious diarrhea, cholera, leptospirosis, hepatitis, schistosomiasis, amebiasis and other parasitic diseases.
All these illnesses can disrupt your vacation and lead to bigger problems, causing disorders that could otherwise be prevented with simple precautions, such as not drinking tap water, avoiding going into rivers, lakes, ponds and even the sea when they are unfit for bathing, cooking food with drinking water, and avoiding walking unprotected (in slippers or sandals, for instance) in areas flooded by rain.
Water Shortage in Rio de Janeiro
- In addition to those problems related to the quality of the water consumed in Rio de Janeiro, there is the water shortage issue, especially during the warmer months, when consumption is higher and downpours don’t always come as expected. In recent summers, dry periods have been commonplace.
- The water in Rio de Janeiro is supplied by the Paraibuna, Jaguari, Funil and Santa Branca tanks, whose waters flow into the Paraiba do Sul River. Among the causes of the decrease in the volume of water in the reservoirs are the lack of rain, soil degradation and the deforestation of 70% of the areas of the watershed that supplies the region.
- Other regions of the country have been seriously suffering from a shortage of water as well, such as São Paulo. Water shortages in other regions make the situation in Rio de Janeiro even worse, as the state is forced to share its watershed.
- While long-term solution measures to tackle the issue are not taken, the shortage of water in Rio de Janeiro during the scorching summer is a problem that no one can escape. Visitors should seek information before planning their trip, to find out if the city’s conditions are favorable when it comes to water supply. Although that’s not something widely publicized by the international press, water tanks in Rio de Janeiro have reached less than 3% of their effective volume in 2015.
Credits for the used images in this Water in Rio de Janeiro article: Agenciabrasil.ebc.com.br, Oswaldo Corneti and Tânia Rêgo.