Those who pushed for the deal to build the dams on the Macal River, three politicians and a senator, have no shame as to what their actions have cost the people along the Macal and Belize Rivers.
The water in the Macal River is polluted and people shouldn’t drink it or swim in it. Many of the fish in the river have high levels of mercury which affects the central nervous system and is most dangerous to children and pregnant women. There is still no workable dam break early warning system.
They were not truthful about the geology of the area when they claimed the foundation of the dam was granite; for it, in fact, was sandstone and shales; significant seismic (earthquake) fault lines at the dam site of the 50-foot wall holding back the water, were erased out of the geological map in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), and the assessment of the vast Maya archaeological sites in the area was suppressed.
From the beginning, there has been a “smoke and mirrors” game with the truth about the construction of the Macal River dams, especially the Macal River Upstream Storage Facility they referred to as the Chalillo Hydro Dam, but which is really a reservoir that is not designed to produce electricity.
The Mollejon Dam, the first dam on the Macal, produced much less energy than estimated by project proponents. The Chalillo Reservoir was needed to store water to send to the Mollejon so it could generate electricity for four hours a day; it is supposed to operate during peak time, when the cost of power from Mexico is the highest.
The cost of this mistake would be borne by the Belizean public.
The Government claimed there was complete disclosure in the building of the Chalillo Reservoir (Dam). Obviously, this is not true. There was no disclosure on the secret contracts that the government signed between the Government and Fortis-BECOL (The Belize Electric Company Limited), owned and operated by a large Canadian corporation.
The terms of that agreement placed BECOL’s needs above the needs of the people of Belize, ignoring the rule of law.
In the agreement, BECOL is guaranteed an annual price increase of at least 1.5% and the option to request more, from April 1, 2001 through to March 31, 2036; BECOL is guaranteed payments for the total estimated energy production, even if this amount is not produced.
BECOL is also not constrained by the law to protect the people, or the environment. The Government promised that no private or other entity could affect the terms and conditions of the agreement and conveyed all rights and interests to BECOL, along with control of the river and all its tributaries.
The Government also passed a special law specifically to exempt the owners of the dams from taxes. If the dam causes harm to people or property or the river, BECOL has no financial liability or responsibility.
WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?
It means that among other things, human health impacts were minimized. The restrictions on water use downstream due to deterioration in water quality were grossly understated, and the need for preventative measures to control water-borne diseases and vector-borne diseases is a glaring omission.
Only the potential risk ascribed to methlymercury contamination of fishes has been seriously considered, but even there, they have not followed through with keeping the public informed.
Dr. Guy Lanza, a research professor, Department of Environmental and Forest Biology, State University of New York and who has a Ph.D. in biology, with a focus on Aquatic Ecology/Environmental Microbiology, advises that people and animals should avoid contact with the Macal River water.
He evaluated current information received by BELPO from the Department of the Environment on the water quality of the Macal River, which indicates the serious health risks from contact with the water.
“The river water has very high levels of fecal coliform bacteria that are associated with the presence of disease-causing bacteria and other microorganisms that can infect humans and animals. The levels of fecal coliform bacteria range between 4 to 20 times that considered safe for contact with the water,” he stated.
The levels of mercury in many species of fish are high, which makes it dangerous to eat. How many babies have been affected by the mercury in the water and in the fish, not to mention the mercury in vaccines?
In a recent notice from the Department of Health, they said that mercury levels have been reduced. In 2013, it was claimed they had been returned to levels equal to what they were before the dams. No country has been able to reduce mercury in rivers. How has Belize been able to do it, or have they?
They promised cheaper electricity; yet, we pay the highest rates in Central America, according to a 2018 report. The average cost of one kilowatt hour (KWH) in Central America (not including Belize) is 26.96 cents. Costa Rica has the highest rate of 36.94; in El Salvador it is 22.06 cents, in Guatemala, 23.08 and in Panama, 22.84 cents.
With the December 2018 Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approval of a rate increase, our cost per one kilowatt hour (KWH) will go from 39.2 cents to 41.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.
BECOL, which is not regulated, charges Belize Electricity (BEL) an amount for electricity and BEL pays; if that amount is high, BEL, which is regulated, must apply to the PUC for a rate increase.
The Third Master Agreement allows for BECOL to include additional rate increases to cover unexpected costs. How much of our electric bill has to do with the cost of building the Chalillo Reservoir? We still don’t know. Because they lied about the geology, the cost of reservoir/dam construction rose dramatically because of the need to be re-designed to take the faulty geology into account.
At the time, it was estimated the cost would be three times more to build because of the need for much more concrete and materials. Their original estimated price was BZ$120 million. They have never disclosed what the final price was. The United States quit building these kind of dams due to the high costs.
Where do we swim?
In the past, people would go to the river and swim or sit in the water, and enjoy a barbeque and the company of friends. People still go to the river – the ones who don’t know it is polluted or don’t speak English and have not been informed about the dangers, or don’t have any alternatives.
For people who know about the river and don’t want to risk their children getting sick, they might go to one of the local resorts that have a swimming pool, if they can afford it. The average charge of using a swimming pool is $10 per person. If people stay for an afternoon, they are expected to buy refreshments. Depending on the number of people you are taking, it could easily cost $100 or more – all because we shouldn’t swim in the Macal River.
How do we know?
If you doubt the condition of the water, check for yourself. We aren’t scientists, but we know when we turn on the tap, the water is milky and smells of chlorine. The chlorine is added in the water treatment to kill the bacteria and other harmful matter. After it runs a while, fill a glass and set it down for a while to see how your water looks.
In a nutshell, Belize gave away productive lands, relinquished further control over water rights on the Macal River, has allowed the destruction of invaluable heritage/cultural possessions, which has adversely impacted its people and natural resources along the Macal River by causing a deterioration of water quality and quality of life.
This (foreign-owned) company has inflicted this damage for private profit with no intention of compensating the Belizean people at all. The rule of law has been sacrificed to foreign investment, with no respect for Belizeans.
Those who pushed for the deal to build the dams have no shame as to what their actions have cost the people along the Macal and Belize Rivers.
by George & Candy* Gonzalez, on behalf of the Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO)
(*Author’s note: Dr. Candy Gonzalez served as one of two NGO representatives on the National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC) for over 7 years and was the sole “no” vote in the 10-1 decision to give environmental clearance for the Chalillo Reservoir/Dam.)