On the environment and health fronts, it has not been a good year. We are a little past halfway through 2019 and we are in a drought that’s beginning to compare with 1975: at least two of our rivers have never been this unhealthy, and we are in the middle of a frightening dengue outbreak. We are also in the midst of making final preparations for that time of year, our nervous annual storm watching season. We normally don’t look favorably at weather systems coming off the west coast of Africa, but this year we might welcome a storm, if it doesn’t reach Category 1, and if it throws some, not too much, water our way.
The big drought of 1975 drove a lot of small farmers backward because, at the encouragement of the Marketing Board and the Ministry of Agriculture, they had taken loans from the DFC to expand their farms using improved technology. Farmers in the Cayo District, especially, borrowed money to bulldoze small parcels, prepare the land with rubber wheel tractors, and purchase fertilizers and seeds. They ended up owing, and many of them never recovered. The interest on their loans ate them up. They would never venture past plantation (milpa) agriculture again.
Grain production has largely been taken over by the Mennonite group, and they have been hard hit by the lack of rain this year. The good news is that many in this group are not as vulnerable as were the small farmers in Cayo back in 1975. It has been a bad season, especially for farmers producing crops in the grass family.
For nearly three decades citizens living along or near the Macal River have been pointing out that the river was in danger. The Macal has been dammed three times, with the Mollejon in the 1990s, the Chalillo in the 2000s, and the Vaca, around 2010.
There were some questions asked when the Mollejon, a run-of-river dam with limited water storage capacity, was built, but when the talk began for the construction of the Chalillo dam, designed to store water to be released to the Mollejon in the dry season, there were major challenges.
Some experts knew that this second dam could seriously impact the Macal River, negatively, and some argued that the impacts would be catastrophic, that the beauty and the quality and the life of the river would be ruined. Many also expressed concerns about the site of the dam. It was argued, some say proven, that claims that the dam was being constructed on granite rock were false.
After successfully navigating through the courts – the challengers to the Chalillo dam took the matter all the way to the Privy Court – another dam to store more water, the Vaca, was constructed on the Macal. The experts might know if it is one, two, or all three that killed the river.
A very famous Belizean said, “Progress Brings Problems.” Many knew the dams would cause problems, and a few of them have never wavered from keeping their concerns in front of the authorities and the Belizean people.
For a long time the leaders for the protection of the Macal River have been George and Candy Gonzalez of BELPO (Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy). They were among those who challenged the construction of the Chalillo dam, and they were upfront with their views when the Vaca dam was proposed too.
The website, www.waterpowermagazine.com, in the story, “Vaca dam challenge goes to court”, said that BELPO had “gone to the court for an injunction, as well as a compliance order (or writ mandamus), ordering the Department of the Environment to enforce the country’s environmental laws. The plaintiffs maintain that there should be no talk about building a third dam at Vaca when the environmental compliance plan for the second dam, Chalillo, is not being complied with.”
In a March 29, 2019 letter to the Amandala, “20 Years of Misinformation”, one of many letters that BELPO has sent to this newspaper over the years, the organization said, “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.”
A footnote to the letter pointed out that Dr. Candy Gonzalez was “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.”
The water is behind the dams now, a done deal, and the Macal River has become a stagnant waterway, with the beauty gone, with fish with mercury levels that make them inedible, with water lilies growing in pools of dead water where once there was a vital, flowing stream. All that can be considered at this time are measures to mitigate the damage, as much as possible. This calls for honesty and urgency on the part of our environmental and agricultural scientists, and engineers.
The New River has been spitting up dead fish during the dry season for decades, and everyone knew that there were things going on in that river that were similar to what happens sometimes to the Crooked Tree Lagoon. Whenever rains are below normal, especially in periods that can be considered as drought conditions, there is oxygen starvation and this is evidenced by fish dying.
On the New River it goes a lot deeper than oxygen starvation. The story there is also about serious pollution. When the crocodiles have belly ache you know you have a very serious problem. Dr. Marisa Tellez, the Executive Director of the Crocodile Research Coalition, in a story reported on Channel Seven News, said she has been studying the crocodile population in Belize and what they found with the crocodiles in the New River was disturbing.
Dr. Tellez said, “We were finding crocodiles that were highly lethargic. Their skin was peeling off. Their skin was turning a whitish-bluish tone. We found many young crocodiles with no teeth.”
Most everyone knew there were things going on with the New River that were different from what was going on in the Crooked Tree Lagoon, and the lack of rain this year has forced these issues to the fore. The New River is being assaulted by factory effluent, human waste, and waste from agricultural developments. There is another task here for environmental and agricultural scientists, and engineers.
The problems on the Macal and New rivers are not the only environmental concerns for this country. There are other rivers/creeks that are under siege, there is concern for the quality of the sea in front of Belize’s largest population center, Belize City, and there is concern that ships coming to our country might not be respecting our environmental laws. Our authorities have their triumphs, one of them being a far more advanced system for solid waste disposal, but for the most part they seem overwhelmed, and failing.
Another huge problem for Belize at this time is a scary dengue epidemic that is already a horror story. Reports are that we have nearly 2,000 cases this year, far more than double any previous year, and the experts are saying that when the rains come, to help our farmers, we might see an increased incidence of dengue.
Dengue is a debilitating, sometimes fatal disease. The WHO (World Health Organization) says that in 1970, “when Latin America lived largely dengue-free, the region only had the DEN-2 serotype. Then DEN-1 entered the scene in 1977, followed by DEN-4 and a new strain of DEN-2 in 1981, this last virus triggering the Cuban epidemic. DEN-3 was the most recent virus to reappear, after many years absence.
“While infection by one dengue virus provides lifelong immunity to that serotype, it increases the risk of severe illness when an individual is later infected by any of the other dengue serotypes. As a result, hyperendemicity – the circulation of multiple serotypes – produces more DHF cases and more deaths.”
The problems with the Macal and New Rivers, and the dangerous dengue situation, are not going away by themselves. The response of our authorities is wanting.