If you live or work in a coastal community, the ugly truth is that every time you flush your toilet, you are polluting the seas and lagoons in your area - even if at a very slow rate.
Don't get too worried because pollution is measured in parts per million. That might seem a bit too abstract, but it basically means that the higher the concentration of a hazardous substance is, the more harm it is doing.
The bottom line, however, is that as you've been hearing for the past few days, communities like Placencia are more at risk. That's because the sewage system being used on the peninsula are mainly septic tanks, and those are inefficient at keeping the chemicals released from human waste from eventually seeping into waterways.
Yesterday, the people from Belize Weste Control told us, an integrated sewage system, which would effectively lower this rate of pollution significantly, is prohibitively expensive - in the millions of dollars. That's money that the company does not have, and if they can't afford it for Placencia, they certainly can't do so for other coastal communities. The resident consultant engineer outlined to us what would have to happen for the company to afford these integrated systems:
Frederick Sandiford - Resident Consultant Engineer, BWSL
"This sewage system is a very high capital investment venture. For Belize City we have a master plan for water and sewage that has already been developed. For sewage alone in Belize city, the estimate to do Belize city is about a hundred and sixty million dollars, that's nineteen ninety three dollars. So we would have to put some inflation on hand to bring it to twenty fifteen dollars. We have done a master plan for San Pedro and we are presently doing detailed design to do our first phase of that master plan on the north of San Pedro. Presently, BWS is developing a strategy to identify the various coastal developments to do a preliminary estimates for sewage collection and treatment system in those areas in particular the coastal down like Corozal, we are dealing with Placencia now, then Dangriga and then Punta Gorda. We'll be doing that preliminary estimate for all of our current existing system."
"Having seen the scope on the need for sewage integrated sewage systems, can BWS even afford these systems? How would that even happen?"
"Well, that's a good question and the direct answer to that is that no BWS cannot afford it. The second issue would be the tariff that will be imposed on our consumers to address sewage. But like I said, BWS is in the process of doing a preliminary estimate for all our systems countrywide."
So, as you heard, the company would have to increase your water bill, and not by a little... by a huge amount, an exponential figure. So, to try to at least get the planning of these systems done, BWS is hoping and waiting on international funding agencies to provide them with grants. That means that these sewage systems might never come, and that means that the very slow pollution of coastal waters will continue.
For context, we note that according to BWS, only about half of Belize City is connected to the integrated sewage system that is currently mitigating this pollution of the caribbean sea in front of the country's largest population center. The system hasn't been expanded in years, meaning that the other half of the city is also slowly polluting the water with human waste.
So, while the country's water and sewage services provider is waiting for a grant, the environment has a ready-made defence against such pollution. We're referring to mangrove forests, which act as a natural filtration.
So, that's one more reason to keep these plants around, apart from preventing soil erosion. But, the problem, as we've shown you, is that developers cut down large tracts of mangroves to make way for their development, which is something that the conservationists are very concerned about. They discussed this with us on Wednesday:
"As you fly into any one of these tourism destinations, San Pedro, Placencia, Caye Caulker, you begin to see the changes in mangrove cover and similar to shrimp farms. These mangroves help to remediate and remove some of the nutrients that's coming off from the various uses and so here we have industries that depend on high water quality. But at the same time those same industries are removing ecosystems that provide a service and help to remove a nutrient out of the system. It's not the solution for all, but it is one of those elements that add to the solution and it's not only on the mainland. We are starting to see that on very small cayes much like harvest Caye. We're starting to see dredging out at Turneff and that completely removes the cover of mangroves. We anticipate that we will see the same problems that we are seeing, in Placencia and San Pedro where you are starting to see the leachate from the septic tanks reaching out to the water and then reduction in water quality."
Nicole Auil Gomez, Executive Director, SEA
"One of the problems is that the fees for removing mangroves are minimal. It is as easy for a developer to remove the mangrove and pay the fine of 50 dollars and they would get away with cutting a lot of mangrove. Hopefully we look forward to a revision of the mangrove legislation. Dredging is a big issue with the lagoon where people might be removing more material than they have permit for. The removal of mangrove, but the penalties and the checks are not done as they should be to be able to stop this problem."