NEW RIVER: A TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS

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By Rudolph Williams
The current state of the New River is lamentable; however, it is not the end of the world. We should recognize that the state of the river was not an overnight occurrence and all the stakeholders within and without the watershed have contributed to its degradation. What materialized right in front of our eyes is that the individual stakeholders conducted their activities independently for their own self-interest (greed) and spoilt the New River that it is no longer the common good for all stakeholders.
This situation is not a new phenomenon, globally nor in Belize. The New River situation is aligned with an economic theory articulated in 1833 by the British Economist William Lloyd on the unregulated use of grazelands in the United Kingdom. He called the grazelands the “commons” and the effects of the uses or abuses that made the commons no longer useful the “Tragedy”, as no individual stakeholder was culpable, hence the term the “Tragedy of the Commons”. All rivers in Belize are shared natural resources. As a matter of fact, all waters; rivers and lagoons, well water, and rainwater are shared natural resources. In Belize’s Water Policy (September 2008), Water Strategy to address Climate Change (March 2009), and the National Integrated Water Resources Act (NIWRA, May 2011), all water resources are vested in the State and the State is obligated to ensure that it is managed sustainably.
The most glaring modern-day Tragedy of the Commons is climate change. The current drought in Belize, a consequence of Climate Change, has exacerbated the New River problem. Another impactful tragedy was the unregulated abstraction of underground water from a regional aquifer system around Los Angeles, California. The Monkey River Village beach recession is another Belizean tragedy linked to water transfers from the watershed and the starvation of the sediments deposited at the mouth of the river. Converting the raw water from the Macal River to potable water has become more challenging due to reduced supplies and poor quality. There are many other Belizean Tragedies.
Restoration of the New River will be technically challenging and expensive; however, river restoration has been done before and Belizeans will surely rise to the occasion. There is no short-term solution to a problem that was groomed over more than three, possibly five, decades in the New River. Because we are not addressing the root of the problem, the efforts to rid Orange Walk Town of the stench will be short-lived, and will result in the downstream transfer of the problem. If similar climate conditions recur next year the New River problem can be worse. Other waterways may be negatively impacted.
The economists and socialists have identified possible solutions to the Tragedy of the Commons. One solution is business as usual; in relatively small communities with strong social networks, the stakeholders will take corrective measures to maintain them at optimum efficiency. Whilst strong social networks exist in some sections of the New River watershed this is not the case for its entirety. In big unstable communities like this watershed, where the diversity of activities abounds, self-interest is prevalent, and understanding and knowledge of hydrological systems is incomplete, governmental intervention for the implementation of long-term solutions is essential.
Another solution to the Tragedy of the Commons is to privatize the natural resource and to allow the new owner to enforce its sustainable management. Without digging into the details of this option, it is clear this is not practicably applicable to the New River watershed and its resources.
A third option is to limit the amount of the resources that is available to the individual stakeholder though extractive permits and limits on quality of effluents entering the commons, and that the users of the resource pay for all of the consequences of its use. This solution, a hybrid form of regulation, is appropriate and applicable in the case of the New River and all other rivers.
In my opinion the greatest Belizean Water Tragedy is the unregulated use of our water resources of which the New River is a casualty. We are all quick to blame the individual commercial and industrial stakeholders, the agricultural runoffs, the lack of wastewater facilities for the Towns, and the Department of the Environment, however these stakeholders could not have contributed to this Tragedy if we applied the NIWRA and coordinated with the other permitting Authorities.
I know that one of the concerns is that the cost of water resources management will be transferred to the stakeholders. Such a concern should not facilitate the free-for-all unsustainable non-management of the nation’s water resources. This concept of “user pay, polluter pay” is the foundation for the management of all our natural resources, even ones that are not vital to the survival of life on planet earth. Water stakeholders can be made to bear no cost for water resources management, the State has that power, however, “Manage! We must manage our water resources sustainably!”
Let’s avoid another tragedy of the commons!