Ambergris Caye off the northeastern coast of Belize is the largest and most populous island in the country and is considered a prime tourism destination that supports the livelihoods of thousands of islanders.
Its urban center, San Pedro Town, is the fastest-growing municipality in Belize, which day by day continues to expand both in population and size. While the Mesoamerican Reef, which runs from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico down to the Bay Islands in Honduras, flanks the island’s east coast, playing an important role in the local tourism economy.
Continued growth, however, has put heavy pressure on the local marine ecosystem and its natural resources, with the improper disposal of sewage waste being one of the biggest problems.
With a limited sewage treatment system, waterways around the island are being exposed to contamination. Although health authorities on the island could not confirm any public health issues related to sewage, environmentalists believe that if the problem continues it could become a potential health hazard for both island residents and natural resources, including the barrier reef.
The majority of cases of improper sewage disposal have been reported in the northern part of Ambergris Caye. In certain areas, concerned residents point out the daily leakage of raw sewage and black water into the western coast of the island and septic tanks along leach beds built near the waterline. In some areas, pipes can be seen protruding from the ground through which the waste allegedly leaks into the environment. The waste is sometimes consumed by marine life while some of it is carried away by the currents.
One resident, who preferred to stay anonymous, said that the situation has been going on for years.
Local sustainable development scientist Valentine Rosado, who heads a company called Grassroots Belize, said corals are particularly vulnerable to this type of pollution and the threat it poses is immense. Any contaminants – in this case, raw sewage – that make it to the bayside of the island can end up on the east coast of Ambergris Caye where the barrier reef is located, he said.
“The bay is like a transition area, and it connects that whole area to the Caribbean Sea,” Rosado explained.
The major impacts could be visible in the longer run, after years of accumulated pollution, he added, saying better infrastructure for sewage treatment and disposal for northern Ambergris Caye is imperative before irreversible damages cripple the largest reef system in the Western Hemisphere.
Sewage: A ‘toxic cocktail’ for corals
Raw sewage is not just human waste; it contains an excess of nutrients adding to the battle between the coral reef and seaweed for space and light.
Kirah Foreman, a marine biologist at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, said that besides the overload of nutrients, sewage brings along with it a lot of other nasty things.
“It is a toxic cocktail that can have a potentially fatal impact on corals,” said Foreman. “There are other pollutants … such as pharmaceuticals and all other drugs like antibiotics that can end up in sewage, affecting the health of the reef and the marine environment.”
Sewage is also full of bacteria and viruses, providing strength to pathogens on the coral’s surface and subjecting it to infections, Foreman explained.
She gave an example of a deadly outbreak of White Pox disease in the mid-1990s, which killed more than 70% of Elk Horn corals in the Florida Keys in the United States. The disease has since spread to the Caribbean region where it continues to threaten this type of coral, one that plays a significant role in the structural and functional integrity of coral reef systems in the Atlantic.
Foreman indicated that the pathogen responsible for White Pox disease could be caused by a common intestinal bacterium found in humans and other animals.
“The source from this disease perhaps comes from sewage,” she said, pointing to theories that sewage leaking from hospitals or commercial areas prompted the disease to appear and decimate sensitive natural resources, such as the reef.
“Lately, we have been monitoring the deadly Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, which allegedly originated in Florida and is killing corals,” Foreman said, referring to a new blight known in Spanish as white syndrome. “So far, there is no known treatment for it, and its origin is unknown but is believed to be caused by some pathogen.”
If the cause is a pathogen related to humans, the origin is speculated to be a sewage leak into the waterways at some point. The disease has been detected at the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve off the eastern coast of Ambergris Caye, threatening to move in a southward path.
Additionally, Foreman pointed out that excess sewage around the reef increases the sea temperature as a result of bacterial activity, leading to bleaching. Like Rosado, she said improved sanitation and sewage treatment is very important, since sewage poses a great danger to the local marine ecosystem and the many lives it supports.
Local authorities aware of the problem
While a couple of reports made headlines in May 2015, when residents reported a local cargo operator dumping raw sewage onto the roadside leading to the dump area in southern Ambergris Caye, local authorities are still struggling with the issue.
The solution to the problem at that time was the construction of a leaching bed for the disposal of waste. A leaching bed comprises a number of individual absorption trenches laid parallel to one another. Each trench consists of a perforated PVC pipe surrounded by clean gravel. Filter cloth is laid on top of the gravel to prevent fine particles in the backfill from clogging the spaces between the gravel.
Raw sewage dumped onto the leaching bed flows down the perforated pipe and percolates through the gravel into the underlying soil for further decomposition. This method was spearheaded by Belize Water Services Limited (BWSL) and was to be constructed beside the company’s sewage ponds on the southern part of the island. Representatives from BWSL were unable to respond to questions about whether or not the leaching beds had been built.
The attention then drifted north of San Pedro, when a year later, in October 2016, a popular beach resort was threatened with closure by the Department of Environment (DOE) for having improperly installed a sewer waste treatment system. With the intervention of area Representative Honorable Manuel Heredia Jr., the resort was given additional time to fix the problem or shut down. Today the resort continues operating, and it is unknown if they addressed the issue following the DOE’s instructions. DOE was contacted to find out if the resort had complied with their demands, but no one could comment on it.
The issue once again raised eyebrows when in October 2017, dumping of raw sewage was reported north of San Pedro along a road leading to a popular beach area. Mayor Daniel Guerrero along with the police and members of the Health Department visited the site. It was obvious that sewage had been dumped beside the road among the swampy mangrove area.
Guerrero sent out a warning to the culprit(s) and asked the general public’s assistance in reporting such incidents by calling a hotline. No one could be held liable, but according to Guerrero, they believed the activity took place under the cover of darkness and was perhaps done by a business establishment.
The most recent reports on potential sewage leakages have not been properly addressed by either the Health Department or the DOE.
Current sewage treatment
Belize Water Services Limited (BWSL) counts three gigantic sewage treatment ponds located south of San Pedro. Businesses and residences along the main street in downtown San Pedro and others along the southern part of town are the only ones on the island connected to these ponds. All other businesses and homes rely on septic systems.
A representative of BWSL stated that before the sewage reaches their treatment ponds, it passes through seven underground stations and by the time it reaches the ponds the waste is almost dissolved. According to BWSL, their ponds use natural bacteria to break down the composition of human waste.
Those not connected to BSWL’s sewage system must hire cargo operators to clean their septic tanks or use leeching fields that dissolve into the island’s underwater systems. Licensed cargo operators on the island are Miguel Briceño, Julio Aguilar and Cesar Cerpa, and they are responsible for taking the collected waste to BWSL ponds.
The company has indicated that their ponds are well secured and there is no possibility of leakage, although they are not far from the sea. However, in times of heavy rains, it is believed that the ponds overflow and some of its contents spill into the surrounding areas, including waterways.
The ponds are surrounded by a dense forest of mangroves, which filters any toxins. But according to biologist Kirah Foreman, with the increase of development in the area and the clearing of mangroves, such filtration may decline in the future, increasing the chances of contamination.
The clearing of mangroves on the island for development is not only perceived as having a negative impact on the natural ecosystem, but it also threatens the habitats of native wildlife, such as crocodiles, who are beginning to be affected with the boom in the construction sector.
Plans for northern Ambergris Caye
The San Pedro Town Council (SPTC) has mandated that every business on the northwest coast of the island, particularly at an area known as Secret Beach, build aerated septic tanks to ensure the proper treatment of sewage and other waste matters. SPTC has stated that liquor licenses will not be renewed for noncompliant businesses in the area. It is yet to be seen if this initiative will be enforced.
Meanwhile, area Representative Heredia Jr. stated that he is aware that improper sewage disposal continues and is working on getting more infrastructure for the northern part of the island.
“In the northern part of San Pedro, we are working on a loan for the expansion of a water and sewer system,” he said, explaining that the central government is working along with BWSL.
BWSL says it is confident that it will start the construction of the water and sewer system this year, some 12 miles north of downtown San Pedro to the tune of $BZ60 million (US$29.8 million).
The system will not only treat raw waste but also include a reverse osmosis desalination water treatment plant. At the time of writing, there have been no further announcements as to whether the funds have been secured.
Other alternatives to help the reef
To replenish areas along the Mesoamerican Reef where corals have died, the San Pedro Tour Operators Association (SPTOA) has embarked on a reef-rehabilitation project. This initiative involves the Kids in Action Club, which certifies young divers. The program exposes children and adults alike to the marine environment and engages them in sustainable projects.
Currently, nurseries consisting of frames have been built and placed under the sea on the eastern side of the island, with hundreds of coral fragments attached to them. When the corals are mature, they will be transplanted to designated areas along the barrier reef.
According to Everette Anderson, chairman of the SPTOA, the project focuses on three types of coral: Elk Horn, Stalk Horn, and Fused Corals. Because these corals grow fast, Anderson said they expect to relocate the new corals from the nurseries in a short period of time. And despite some challenges due to the rise in water temperatures, he said, the outcome is looking good.
“Our nursery has recovered from this year’s bleaching, and now we need to expand it, care for it if we want to make a difference,” said Anderson.
Every two weeks SPTOA visits the nurseries to remove any algae that could affect the growth of the corals.
As a tour operator, Anderson said he understands the importance of the reef system and believes that it is everyone’s responsibility to take care of it in any way possible.
What can you do?
Ensure your septic system is compliant with the Health Department’s regulations, particularly if you are required to install an aerated system. Also ensure that whenever you hire someone to empty your system, a receipt from the BWS water treatment plant is provided. Furthermore, report suspicious dumping or leaking pipes to the relevant authorities like the San Pedro Town Council at 226-2198.
A version of this story was originally published in The San Pedro Sun on 2 Jan. 2020. Support for the reporting was provided by the Earth Journalism Network's Mesoamerican Reef Reporting project.
Banner image: Sewage floats on a waterway near mangroves in Ambergris Caye / Credit: Dion Vansen