DOE holds public consultations on New River

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The Department of the Environment (DOE) and the people of Orange Walk have decided to work together to hopefully rehabilitate the New River. This very important waterway, which passes near multiple communities in the Orange Walk District, is currently over-exposed to high levels of pollution. That pollution is now threatening the environment and the health of those Belizeans living near it.
The river’s distress first caught public attention at the beginning of the month. That was when a group of worried residents took the media on a boat tour to show that parts of the river nearest to Orange Walk Town appeared severely discolored, when compared to parts furthest away from human influence. When press inquiries were made with the Department, it was revealed that water quality tests on the river showed a spike in nutrient pollution. The drought in Northern Belize has only served to compound the problem, since the river is somewhat stagnated due to the lack of water.
About a week and a half later, persons started spotting mass numbers of dead fish on the surface of the river, near Orange Walk Town and other villages in close proximity. By that time, the DOE had already started their own inquiries by testing water samples at different sites along the river.
On Friday night, August 23rd, 2019, the DOE hosted a public consultation to get feedback from the Residents of Orange Walk. After all, they are the ones being most affected, and therefore, they should be part of the solution. Also, since they interact more regularly with the river, they are also best suited to report activities that they believe are actually harming its ecosystem.
An important message that the DOE delivered at the public consultation is that all human activity, whether it is commercial, industrial, or residential in nature, have all contributed to the New River’s pollution.
Dr. Ed Boles, an aquatic ecologist, working with the University of Belize, assisted the DOE in making the point to over a hundred residents who were gathered at the Gala Lounge.
Dr. Boles said, “The New River is… dominated by agriculture… Agriculture carries a lot of its own impacts. There’s a lot of pesticide usage. There’s aerial spraying. There are fertilizers, sediments and other things that are associated with agriculture… There are several industries along the river, not just 1, but several and these are just the larger ones. There are also small industries that are along the river too, and all industries that are using water, processing foods, or processing chemicals of one kind, or another, eventually discharging that water back into the river… We also have a lot of urban areas around the system. If you look on a Google Earth map, you’ll see these urban sites, clustered along the river bank. And typically, what happens is the riparian forests around these areas are being removed. And there are also storm drains that lead from urban areas into the river itself. And, this is untreated water. And, as storm waters are moving over urban landscapes, they’re picking up fecal material from pets and livestock, from septic tanks, and other sources….Everybody who flushes a toilet; everybody that uses resources, we’re all contributors to that. So, if we really want to clean up the river, we’ve got to start with ourselves.”
To help reduce the impact that the businesses in Orange Walk have had on the River, the Department of Environment has put together a proposed plan of action.
Anthony Mai, one of the Environmental Officers who made presentations to the gathering, said, “We met with the Orange Walk Town Council, and we got a list of the trade license holders, and there are some that we have identified that we need to meet, discuss, and look at their wastewater management, and then help them… We want to sit with them, to help them to put the correct measures in place to protect the environment… All the different restaurants, the bars, the hotels, the corn tortilla factories, the poultry, the meat shops, the mechanic shops, we want to meet with these people. We want to ask them, what are you doing with your wastewater? And we’ll say, let’s work together to put something in place, so that your water doesn’t go into the river, and if it go into the river, it is treated, and it is proper.”
While everyone is responsible for some of the harmful effects of prolonged pollution on the new river, some sources are more potent than others. One of those sources is the Tower Hill sugar factory for Belize Sugar Industries Limited (BSI), which is owned by majority shareholder American Sugar Refinery.
Several of the residents of Orange Walk demanded that the DOE disclose what they know of BSI/ASR’s impact on the river.
That’s when Anthony Mai said, “The data shows that water quality is at its lowest right in front of BSI. We are not here to hide any information. We’re here to present the facts.”
During the questions-and-answers section of the public consultation, some of the residents of Orange Walk criticized the DOE for not being strict with enforcement to discourage residents and corporate entities from abusing the river to get rid of their wastewater.
There was also criticism that DOE depends on companies like BSI/ASR to assist them in conducting water quality tests. The Department’s representatives did their best to make the point that they have many responsibilities and not enough resources and manpower to get it done. That is why they make it a requirement of the companies to assist in the process.
The long-term plan is that the Department wants to work with the community in establishing a Water Shed Management Plan for the New River.