Friday, 21.08.2009

Excess turbidity of the Macal River water, if not dealt with, can result in public health and other environmental problems, according to an environmental expert contacted by the Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO).  Heavy rains over the last few weeks were at first thought to be disturbing the silt and sediments on the river bottom and turning the river an unsightly brown color; however, in a release to the press earlier this week, BELPO points the finger at the company that operates the Chalillo and Mollejon Dams, Belize Electric Company Limited (BECOL), as being responsible for the present state of the Macal.

Chalillo Dam - Macal water unfit for drinking or cookiingMacal waters unfit for drinking or cooking.

“The source (of the evident contamination of the water) is the intentional release of accumulated sediment and silt from the bottom of the reservoir,” states the release.  This water then enters the Macal from the Chalillo Dam.  The startling effect is that of clear water on one side of the dam and murky, “chocolate-colored” outflow on the other.

BELPO, a local non-governmental organization that works to promote awareness and protection of the people and the environment through law and its enforcement, is calling on the Department of the Environment to look into the matter before major health problems among people and livestock present themselves as a result of this situation.

Moreover, warned the President of the organization, Ms.  Candy Gonzalez: “This water has reached the sea (through the Belize River).  When will action be taken?  After it impacts the (Barrier) Reef?” She cautioned that if the corals that make up Belize’s Barrier Reef become covered with silt, they won’t be able to breathe and would begin to die .  She further cited the conclusions of the environmental scientist who reviewed high-resolution photos of the present state of the Macal River, Dr.  Guy Lanza, Director of the University of Massachusetts’ Environmental Science Program.  He is purported to be a water quality expert with 35 years of experience in analyzing dam impacts and water pollution problems.  He has stated that “immediate action is required to halt the release of additional sedimentsfrom the Chalillo Dam, and to quickly respond with appropriate remedial strategies to reduce the threat to humans, livestock and the Macal.  Mopan and Belize River ecosystems.  The water in that river is unfit for human consumption and simply cannot be filtered and disinfected due to the high turbidity levels.” He added that the levels of turbidity in the Macal appear to be “thousands of times higher than acceptable World Health Organization standards.” The results will become apparent with the loss of fish in the river and other aquatic fauna, as well as prolong the survival of disease-causing bacteria.  This, of course, would have a major negative impact on the surrounding ecosystem, especially in regard to the food chain.

For its part, BECOL questioned the validity of analyses made purely on visual examination of aerial photographs.  The Reporter spoke with BECOL Vice President of Operations at Chalillo, Mr.  Stephen Usher, who rejected the claims being made by BELPO.

He said that the flooding and ensuing turbidity of the Macal River is an annual occurrence, but that recent torrential rains have exacerbated the problem, making inspections upstream for the source of the turbidity unfeasible.  He expects, however, to be able to do so within the next few days.

While he admitted that the outflow from the dam of the Macal river shows extreme murkiness, while the water in the lake is apparently clear, he said that it only appears so from the air, since an on-site visit would show that, below the surface of the water, there is also significant turbidity.  This, in his view, indicates that the sedimentation is coming from upstream, since heavy rains cause a lot of run-off, and is collecting behind the dam.

In earlier reports to the media, the hydroelectric company had indicated that the water pollution was due to deforestation and Xate exploitation.  In fact, said Mr.  Usher, “we had already noticed the increasing sediment levels about a month ago, at a branch of the Macal upstream.” As to BECOL releasing this sedimentation intentionally as BELPO is alleging, Mr.  Usher was categorical in denying the charge, stating that the company uses water from the bottom of the dam for power-generation and pump out a certain amount of water from a side-valve for environmental purposes.

When asked about the possible toxicity of the water, Mr.  Usher said that BECOL has the water tested on a weekly basis and is presently working closely with the Hydrology Department of the National Meteorological Service, with the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO), and with the Dept.  of the Environment on the present situation, and is expecting the results of water samples sent for testing to NEMO and the Ministry of Health by early next week.

He added that the water in the Macal should clear up eventually but that repeated rains are prolonging that process.  This newspaper subsequently contacted the Dept.  of the Environment and spoke with Senior.  Environmental Officer Geban Hulse, who said that various government agencies concerned with the situation have been looking into it, including, among others, his own department of Public Health, and the Department of Forestry.

He refrained from making any official comment on the matter because a joint statement is forthcoming “very shortly”, he said, from the agencies involved.

By Homero Ayuso - Staff Reporter

Read The Reporter's article online.