It is sad that it takes dead bodies to bring attention to the potential for disaster created by the lack of a workable dam break early warning system for the Chalillo, Vaca and Mollejon dams. It only takes talking to people in the area to realize that there is no general knowledge of what to do if the dam breaks.
It took the deaths of two students from Corozal – Egar Puck and Anahi Zepeda, who “were swept off into depths” of the Macal and drowned, to learn that BECOL releases water from the dams, which causes a rise in the water levels in the area of the bridges connecting San Ignacio and Santa Elena.
According to Stephen Usher, BECOL’s Vice President of Operations, interviewed after the death of the two students earlier this month, Vaca Dam releases water to generate electricity that reaches San Ignacio around 4:00 p.m. But why didn’t the public know that information? Just prior to the death of the students, there were two other drownings, one in the Macal River and one a little downstream at Santa Familia where the Macal meets the Mopan River.
Over Easter, another drowning occurred in the Belize River, close to Santa Familia.
And just this weekend, a young man, Johnatan Requeña, drowned around 3:40 p.m. on Saturday, close to the time the two students drowned earlier this month. According to a police press release, a friend who was with him saw, “when Requena jumped into the water and immediately saw him begin struggling and going under as he fought to stay above water.”
If we had an early warning system, it could be tested daily by warning people that there will be a rise in the river due to release of water from the dams. This would serve the purpose of familiarizing the public about the siren and what it meant and regularly testing to make sure the sirens worked.
An education program could let people know that, for instance, a short blast of the siren means the water is approaching the populated area. A long, steady blast of the siren means a major flood or dam break incident.
Something like that, which does not take a brain scientist to figure out, could effectively inform, sensitize and continually test a warning system that should have been in place since 2005 according to two Supreme Court decisions. The Court’s directives about informing the public about eating the fish high in mercury and problems with drinking or being in the river have been discontinued as far as we know.
Would the drownings have been prevented had there been a warning in place? From police and news reports, we know that close to 4 p.m. a strong current pulled at least 3 of those who died, under at the time Stephen Usher, BECOL’s Vice President of Operations, said is when the water comes down from the dams. Would they still be alive if these simple warning steps were taken?
George and Candy Gonzalez
BELPO members and Cayo residents