New River Crisis: A Solution

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Fumbling, Bumbling, Stumbling

The New River Follies

For the past month or so residents of Orange Walk Town have been grappling with an environmental disaster that is affecting the New River which meanders through that municipality.  We have all heard the technical explanations from the powers that be, however, I will attempt a layman’s summary of the problem before we explore a simple solution to the issues at hand.  The river is suffering from a condition known as eutrophication, which essentially is the lack of dissolved oxygen caused by dense growth of plant life, caused be an excess of nutrients originating from:

  • Several industrial sources discharging effluents into the river;
  • Residential effluents like wastewater, septic leaching, etc.;
  • Waste from small businesses such as tortilla shops, restaurants;
  • Agricultural sources such as fertilizer run off, blood from slaughterhouses (Yes blood! Think about how many chickens, pigs and cows are killed in Shipyard, where do you think that blood eventually ends up?)
  • Decomposing organic material that accumulated on the riverbed over time.

Additionally, the river is relatively flat from its source at the New River Lagoon, to its discharge point into the Corozal Bay.  The result of this topographical feature is that even with the heaviest of rains the New River is one of the slowest flowing rivers in Belize. Even though the New River flows through primarily low-lying terrain, it does have a few rises in elevation, the last of which is near San Estevan Village.  This incline near San Estevan and the reduced water flow caused by the severe drought affecting the Northern districts, has created pond like environment in and around Orange Walk Town.  This nutrient rich water, combined with minimized water movement, and excessively warm temperatures it is the perfect environment for major algal blooms.

As day follows night, algal blooms deteriorate into algal crashes as these organisms go through their life cycle.  These crashes only serve to exacerbate the already critically low dissolved oxygen condition of the river, more decomposing organic matter is added to consume precious oxygen. Few aquatic organisms can survive in this and it leads to the fish kills that Orange Walk residents have been witnessing.  

While the situation is dire, it is not the first time we have seen this phenomenon negatively impact this body of water.  Therefore, it was with utter amazement that on Friday September 20th, 2019, I sat and listened to the Deputy Chief Environmental Officer Mr. Edgar Ek state:

It’s a huge concern for the department. However, there is nothing much we could do to stop it from flowing into the Corozal Bay. We are not sure to what extent the damages will be hence we are also doing water quality analysis. We are working along with SACD to conduct baseline water quality analysis from Corozal Bay going way down to headwaters. That will give us an indication how our water quality stands and then we will be monitoring once all of this reach the Bay. We will continue to do monitoring to evaluate and then I think we will have to find a strategy on how to deal with the problem because right now we do not have an idea what is going to be the extent of, again once it reaches the ocean, dilution starts to take place and we will see what the measures will tell us.”

This statement that smacks of indifference and surrender comes from the second highest ranking person within the department charged with protecting Belize’s ecological patrimony and must be taken as the official government position.  This apparent absence of political will or incompetence (or both) should send alarm bells ringing throughout the length and breadth of this beautiful country. Furthermore, there are two telling facts that must be taken into account:

  • This is not the first such occurrence of this nature in our New River;
  • It has been more than a month that has elapsed since this current crisis first manifested itself.

We must analyse the actions or lack thereof on the part of the government and its agencies in the context of the two FACTS stated above.  This absence of a clear, executable strategy shows that the relevant authorities and, by extension, the UDP government have put very little thought into the possible measures that can be employed to contain and or mitigate the environmental catastrophe that is impacting the livelihoods of Belizeans that live along the river, and that will soon begin to affect those who depend on the Corozal Bay, and, by extension, the Caribbean Sea and the reef for their economic and recreational activities. Apparently, the DOE and this UDP government are content with executing a hold strategy that does the bare minimum and, in the end, simply say “there is nothing we can do so just tek unu lick”.  Well there are several things that can be done!

While the government authorities have essentially thrown their hands up in the air, and resigned themselves to doing nothing, it must be noted that there are several bioremediation technologies that can be applied to reduce the nutrient load in the New River.  In the interest of space, I will highlight one such technology.

Effective Microorganism (EM) Technology was developed in Japan by Professor Dr. Teruo Higa and introduced in 1982.  Since its introduction the use of this Microbial inoculant has spread to over 120 countries worldwide, including Belize.  EM are a multi-culture of coexisting anaerobic and aerobic beneficial microorganisms (Shalaby. E, 2011).  Essentially, they are “beneficial bacteria” that occur naturally in the environment.  These naturally occurring organisms are isolated based on their favourable characteristics and cultured into specific formulas for specific applications.  The EM works to safely decompose organic material and convert them into new cells, water, gases and other benign products.  EM species of microorganisms contain various organic acids due to the presence of lactic acid, which secrete organic acids, enzymes, antioxidants, and metallic chelates. The creation of an antioxidant environment by EM assists in the enhancement of the solid-liquid separation, which is the foundation for cleaning water (Shalaby. E, 2011).

While the use of EM technology in Belize is a bit of a secret to the average person, it has been used effectively worldwide for decades in the treatment of wastewater, water quality management in shrimp farms, and the rehabilitation of polluted bodies of water.  The technology is readily available in Belize, with the most prominent supplier being Belize Agro-Enterprise Limited.  These products are widely used in the shrimp farming industry, and other wastewater management applications locally.

Although EM technology has not be used in Belize for a project the magnitude of the New River crisis, there is ample evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of EM in this type of application.  Ulsoor Lake in Bangalore India is a body of water that totals 124 acres in size sits in a heavily populated area, as a result the lake is heavily polluted primarily by organic material (sewage, domestic effluents).  The surface of the lake was covered by a thick, green algae that rendered the lake uninhabitable to fish and other aquatic species.  On 28th November 2009 a decision was taken to begin a restoration of the lake using EM products.  By 21st December 2009 there was a noticeable difference in the physical condition of the lake, and by February, 2010 the lake was restored to conditions not seen in many decades.  Below are before and after pictures of Ulsoor Lake.

Source:https://www.slideshare.net/bangaloreenvironment/new-ulsoor-lake-blog-presentation-bykpk

The examples of the use of EM technology in bioremediation efforts to address polluted water bodies are numerous.  Below are the names of water bodies which have been rejuvenated using EM, and the relevant links for readers to read about the problems and solutions firsthand:

Sungia Sebulung River – Malaysia

Sungai Pinang River – Malaysia

Asechi River – Japan

These examples are of rivers that were far more deteriorated than the New River currently is. Through the use of EM liquids introduced directly to these water bodies, and bokashi balls (tennis sized balls made by mixing Effective Microorganism solution, rice hull, molasses, and clay/mud), these rivers have been revitalized.  The EM solution is applied directly to the water throughout the affected area, organisms multiply quickly and start removing organic matter from the surface and in the upper levels of the water column. The bokashi balls on the other hand are distributed throughout the area identified for treatment.  They sink and settle on the riverbed, where the microorganisms rapidly multiply and work on dissipating the organic material on the riverbed and in the lower reaches of the water column.  The manner in which the beneficial microorganisms in the EM technology work can be likened to a colonization.  They replicate and quickly take over the microhabitat, when applied properly the dominance of these microorganisms will manifest in a positive impact to the entire area treated, bringing back the oxygen balance necessary for fish and other aquatic animals to thrive.

Although this technology is known worldwide, tried, proven, easy to manage and relatively cheap, there was no one in the DOE or GOB that had the forethought of applying it to this New River situation? If the answer by the DOE/GOB to this question is “we did not know of this method”, then heads should roll for not at a minimum exploring this option.  If the answer is “it’s too expensive”, then the UDP government is not serious about maintaining Belize’s reputation as one of the world’s premier eco-tourism destinations.

All is not lost; it is not too late to explore the use of EM technology in the New River, as the eutrophication episode persists in the area, and we still have to opportunity to clean up the immediate area of concern and mitigate the impact downstream, in the Corozal Bay and beyond.  Furthermore, if history is the great teacher that we know it to be, this situation will reoccur at some point, as there have been minimal adjustments in the management of effluents (industrial, agricultural and domestic) that flows into the river.  The lack of policy shift to address this reoccurring problem is symptomatic of a government that does not plan or does not anticipate possible occurrences.  Instead, they are perfectly content to dwell in crisis mode, with a completely reactionary posture, and even when they react, it is inadequate to address the immediate crisis.

Even if this were a crisis without a clear solution, at a minimum the DOE/GOB should have demonstrated more conviction in their response.  As has become the typical with this UDP government, the things that REALLY matter are given little to no attention, while the trivial things like rum, pibil and Christmas cheer receive copious allocation of government resources.  Orange Walkeños deserve better, Belize deserves better! It’s time for us to DEMAND BETTER!

P.S.  The clean-up of the New River is just the beginning. We need to implement stricter controls on how wastewater and other organic pollutants are disposed of. This current episode that is playing out in the New River demonstrate the need for a new approach to wastewater management in all sectors  Additionally, a sustained campaign must be designed and launched to build awareness of how each of our day to day actions impact the water that we drink, recreate in, and farm with.  We are killing our fresh water supply Belize.