by G. Mario Guizar
Firstly, I would like to establish that the observations and opinions presented in this letter are strictly personal and do not in any way represent any position of, or conclusions by, the Caye Caulker Business Association (CCBA), an organization for which I am the interim president.
I am moved to write this letter after witnessing the incredible ironies that unfolded at the press conference last Friday, the 3rd of January, with a panel of representatives from the Belize Electricity Ltd. (BEL), Belize Water Services Ltd. (BWSL), the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and Hon. Minister Manuel Heredia.
The press conference was largely a public relations pacification session chocked full of promises and fancy sidesteps to try and explain away why the people of Caye Caulker have been suffering from a grossly unacceptable level of performance by both utility companies for some time now. The situation reached critical mass when both companies managed to reach a zero production capacity at the same time, unfortunately during the busiest season for the Caye Caulker stakeholders. To listen to the company representatives, you can almost get the feeling that these outages are the fault of the Caye Caulker residents for being overachieving entrepreneurs — growing the island’s economic activities beyond their ability to accurately analyze data and develop accurate forecasts.
I will share with you a couple enlightening comments from the BWSL representative with respect to the capacity of the current plant on Caye Caulker. And I paraphrase here….
(a) The plant on Caye Caulker, when installed eight years ago, had a 20-year projected demand capacity.
I don’t know what algorithm they (BWSL) were using to determine the growth rate for Caye Caulker, but they certainly got it VERY wrong. One only had to look at what was happening on Ambergris Caye, and the economic recovery in the United States post the 2008 crash, to arrive at an answer significantly more accurate than theirs. The reality is that at less than halfway through their 20-year projected period, the plant is just barely keeping up with the current demands.
(b) We have an on-site storage capacity of 150,000 gallons and a production capacity of 150,000 gallons per day.
Accepting BWSL’s numbers as factual, Caye Caulker’s current average daily use is 120,000 gallons per day. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to interpret those numbers to arrive at the conclusion that the facility on Caye Caulker has no more than a day and a quarter reserve in the event of a total breakdown such as the one recently experienced. That presupposes that the on-site tank is full at the time of the catastrophic failure. Is that sufficient? In my opinion it is NOT. Certainly BWSL must consider and plan for the realities of the island location with the challenges of getting both personnel and equipment on site. The residents on Caye Caulker have no choice but to tough it out when the frequent low pressure or NO water situations occur. However, the visitors to the island, on which the local economy depends, have the option of leaving; and that is exactly what they have been doing. To the executives and planners at BWSL, I suggest the addition of a simple, relatable factor to add into the decision matrix when planning for the expansion of the current plant and the next plant (as promised) on North Caye Caulker. That being…. How many days would you tolerate sewage in YOUR toilet before you can flush it????
(c) We have plans to build another water plant on North Caye Caulker, but we’re looking for the land.
This particular statement struck me as being particularly ironic since seated immediately to the left of the BWSL rep who made the statement was Hon. Manuel Heredia, the area rep for Caye Caulker. It is no secret that over the years and changing administrations, many acres of land have systematically been “granted” to residents and many times, non-residents of Caye Caulker. These land giveaways mostly seem to coincide with an upcoming election. Most recently on Caye Caulker, land has even been created through extensive dredging and extending lot lines into the sea to accommodate special interests. Land that was set aside for a sports complex on the island was later quietly subdivided and granted to some (connected?) individuals over the objection of the Caye Caulker Village Council.
Designating land for a water plant on North Caye Caulker should have been a “given” when phase one of the subdivision was taking place. And if it was overlooked at that time, there was the second chance when the phase two subdivision was taking place. In my opinion, the fact that land was not reserved for a water plant on North Caye Caulker constitutes a gross level of incompetence on the part of the planners, local government, Natural Resources Dept. and anyone else that was involved in the subdivision process.
This makes me ask the question: Are Caye Caulker’s long-term needs and interests being properly served? Is there a vision for the island 20 years out and a comprehensive plan in place towards those objectives? When I say “vision”, I mean one that is supported by the consensus opinion of the Caye Caulker community and not one that is developed remotely and forced onto the seemingly powerless residents.
(d) The PUC is relatively powerless in penalizing the utility companies when issues like the one on Caye Caulker occur.
This one is particularly troubling because in effect it says that there is NO enforceable oversight mechanism in place to ensure compliance with the regulations that are put in place in the front end. Because the Government of Belize
(GOB) is the majority shareholder in the utility companies and the PUC is a part of GOB, using a football analogy, the line gets blurred between team owner and the referee.
So what that means to the frustrated Caye Caulker residents is that all the promises made in the press conferences of the past several days are just, as I stated in the beginning of this letter, “public relations pacification sessions chocked full of promises and fancy sidesteps”. As long as GOB maintains control of the utility companies the game is rigged against the individual consumer and even a collection of consumers such as the Caye Caulker community. There are no consequences for poor performance! We CANNOT hold the utility companies accountable in any substantive way for their past performance, nor can we enforce any of the promises that were made. So what will change in the future?
(e) Our system is designed for 20 psi line pressure in the horizontal water line(s) from the plant.
I have been monitoring the service meter at my property for some time now and, giving the Devil its due, on very rare occasions I have seen as much as 25 psi. But that is very, very rare, and in fact the “normal” pressure is closer to 20 psi. Using the most basic calculation for pressure lost due to head, the distance the water rises, a shower head located in a first-floor bathroom 20 feet above the horizontal run of BWSL’s line would see a reduction in the pressure of about 8.5 psi of that already marginal 20 psi pressure entering the property. Now you know why you need to have your own pressurized system and incur the additional costs of installing and running a pump if you live above ground level. In my opinion, the pressure entering the individual properties should be at a minimum 30 psi. In so doing, BWSL could work cooperatively with BEL to reduce the stress to their generation system caused by the possibly hundreds of ½ HP pumps across the island, each drawing about 700 watts when running.
I am surprised that not anywhere in the discussion about water pressure, or the lack thereof, was mention made about the construction of water towers. Gravity is free —why not let it work for us? This is another opportunity to reduce our dependency on electricity. The operational philosophy of BWSL seems bent on embracing complicated and costly solutions while overlooking practical and cost-effective alternatives. Options that in actuality more closely align with the image of Belize as a “green destination”.
As a parenthetical but related thought on the issue of water pressure and water service in general, the Belize Tourist Board (BTB) mandated a few years ago that all tourist accommodations must be serviced by potable water from BWSL. However, as well intended as that mandate was, it failed to address the reality that Caye Caulker specifically was being under-serviced. And, because as mentioned earlier, there really isn’t in fact an effective governing body to enforce the performance standards for the delivery of water service, the Caye Caulker stakeholders are stuck between a rock and a hard place: Having to comply with the BTB regulations while being under-services and bearing the additional costs of running pumps.
Conclusion WRT Water Service for Caye Caulker:
I am of the opinion that the residents of Caye Caulker should chart a course for their residences and businesses that is as self-reliant as possible and less dependent on the services of BWSL. I know it’s not feasible to be totally independent of BWSL, but there are steps that can be taken to insure both your residences and businesses against continued interruptions. For instance, wherever possible and affordable, install water collection tanks in your yard for rain water. Integrate a water tank on your roof or other high locations that will allow gravity feed of your stored water in the event of either or both water shortage and an electrical disruption. If you are in the planning stages of construction, integrate a water storage tank into your structure. These steps can give you some breathing room when the next crisis comes…. and sadly, it will. As long as the utility companies are allowed to operate without any enforceable oversight and without penalties for poor performance, there is no guarantee that all the promises made recently will come to fruition.
On the positive side, the recent crisis on the island has united the residents around a common cause. They have found their voices and have spoken up via social media, the local streaming news media appropriately called The Voice, and the professional associations such as the local chapter of the Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA) and the Caye Caulker Business Association (CCBA). Working in conjunction with the Caye Caulker Village Council, the people and the organizations have presented a unified front that cannot be ignored and/or pacified with empty promises. I close this letter with hopeful expectation that this newly crystalized energy will continue and grow stronger and develop into a dynamic force to be reckoned with in pursuit of all matters pivotal to the long-term relevance and sustainability of a vibrant Caye Caulker for its residents and visitors well into the future.
G. Mario Guizar