Polluted rivers


Jos__ Leon__dio Rosendo dos Santos has been diving into both rivers for more than 20 years. Hired largely to unclo...
Jos__ Leon__dio Rosendo dos Santos has been diving into both rivers for more than 20 years. Hired largely to unclog drainage gates, he scours the murky depths of the Tiet__ and Pinheiros, which have symbolized S__o Paulo_s environmental degradation for decades, bringing to the surface a list of items that is eerie and bizarre.

Over the years, his takings (which, as a contractor for public utility companies, he is required to hand over to the authorities) have included a suitcase with $2,000 inside, handguns, knives, stoves and refrigerators, countless automobile tires, and, in another suitcase, the decomposing remains of a woman who had been dismembered.

_I stopped looking for suitcases after that,_ said Mr. dos Santos, 48.

He readily admits that jumping into rivers that rank among the world_s most polluted is not for everyone. But for Mr. dos Santos, a surfer who got into diving to pay for his wave-catching habit, his job has brought him an unusual level of notoriety and admiration from Paulistanos, as the residents of this hard-bitten megacity are called.

On the traffic-clogged highways that trace the rivers_ banks, some drivers stop their cars, taking pictures with their smartphones when they see him preparing to dive. Talk-show hosts marvel at his courage. One newspaper here, describing Mr. dos Santos in his futuristic diving garb, compared him to a _Japanese superhero._

Part of the fascination with Mr. dos Santos has to do with how Paulistanos view their rivers. As the historian Janes Jorge recounts in a book on the city_s largest river, the Tiet__ (pronounced tchee-uh-TEY), it was adored by city residents as recently as the middle of the last century, when they fished, swam and held rowing competitions in its waters.

Then S__o Paulo rapidly expanded to become one of the world_s largest cities, its residents moving into high-rise buildings, gated enclaves and sprawling slums. Factories deposited their waste in the rivers. Flourishing districts in S__o Paulo_s metropolitan area expanded without basic sanitation systems, discharging sewage directly into the Tiet__ and Pinheiros.

The rivers now persist in Brazil_s popular culture as dystopian objects of derision. Rock bands like Skank composed songs about the seemingly impossible dream of cleaning up the Tiet__. Laerte Coutinho, a cartoonist, created an entire strip, _Pirates of the Tiet__,_ in which marauders set forth from the malodorous river on raiding expeditions across contemporary S__o Paulo.

MR. DOS SANTOS, soft-spoken and bespectacled, insists that he has never seen any pirates navigating the Tiet__ or its tributaries. But he has glimpsed other living beings. Herons tiptoe along some riverbanks. He said that capybaras, the world_s largest rodents, roll in the mud along some stretches of the Tiet__ and Pinheiros. Alligators have been known to emerge from the rivers, weary but resilient.

One of the most astonishing sights of all, Mr. dos Santos said, was a man in S__o Miguel Paulista, a gritty district on S__o Paulo_s eastern fringe, who went by the name Pez__o and dived into the Tiet__ without any gear in search of metal to sell to recyclers. _If there_s anyone who deserves recognition, it_s that guy, not me,_ Mr. dos Santos said.

Still, he said he held out hope that the stubborn presence of life along S__o Paulo_s rivers might reflect the latest phase in their existence: the attempts to resurrect them. Since 1992, the authorities have been advancing with a painstakingly slow project to clean up the Tiet__ and Pinheiros.

Political leaders here contend that the cleanup effort, financed with loans from the Inter-American Development Bank, is going swimmingly. Gov. Geraldo Alckmin even said this year that by 2015, boats could start taking tourists down the Tiet__ for glimpses of S__o Paulo_s wonders. (_The problem is removing the smell,_ he acknowledged.)

Brazilian scientists point to precedents of restoring vital waterways, as Paris has done with the Seine or London with the Thames, allowing salmon to thrive there decades after they had disappeared.

Cleaning the Tiet__ and its tributaries, however, offers complications that are in a league of their own, and paramount among them is access to sewage treatment. This deficiency plagues Brazil_s only truly global city, in which hedge funds inhabit hulking postmodern skyscrapers, well-heeled consumers stream into luxury shopping malls and immigrants are as likely to speak Castilian Spanish as Quechua.

At the same time, four million people _ about 20 percent of S__o Paulo_s metropolitan population _ still lack basic sanitation, according to Monica Porto, an expert on water reservoir management at the University of S__o Paulo. One area in metropolitan S__o Paulo, Guarulhos, with a population of about 1.3 million and home to the city_s international airport, treated almost none of its sewage before 2011.

PROGRESS is slowly being made to hook up more homes to the sewage system. But S__o Paulo_s hilly geography and its patchwork of squatter settlements, which persist in areas close to the rivers, make this a forbidding task. So the waste of millions, along with some industrial byproducts of dubious origin, still flows into the waterways once treasured by Paulistanos.

_We need to adjust our expectations,_ said Ms. Porto, who cautioned against projections that the rivers could soon have recuperated ecosystems. _By 2030, we could have rivers we shouldn_t be ashamed of,_ she said. About Mr. dos Santos and his unusual vocation, she had just one thing to say: _Poor thing._

Still, Mr. dos Santos considers himself anything but unfortunate. The money is not great for diving in S__o Paulo_s rivers, with a salary of about $2,200 a month, but the job has enabled him to raise a family and buy a home. He proudly owns his own Kirby Morgan diving helmet, and he never touches the water without being in protective plastic gear that is thicker than a normal wet suit and requires assistance to put on.

He says that stress is part of each dive. His vision is severely impaired once under the water of the murky rivers. The stench, he acknowledged, can overwhelm. Then there is the fear of tearing his diving suit on a piece of metal, which could lead to infection, or coming across carcasses. _After every dive, I have a glass of Montilla Carta Ouro rum,_ he said. _It helps me feel clean._

But Mr. dos Santos says there is also something special about his job, if only because so few people can do what he does. By his own reckoning, the city_s rivers are a bit cleaner than they once were. He comes across fewer cadavers than in years past, and the Tiet__, he said, now smells somewhat better than the Pinheiros, where he now does most of his diving.

His dives also give him a rare perspective on this intimidating city. _This sounds crazy, but the rivers are the most peaceful place in S__o Paulo,_ he said.

_When I drop to their depths, it becomes absolutely quiet,_ he added. _It_s like I_m in space, pondering a civilization which has pushed itself to the edge of destruction._

By SIMON ROMERO

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