Bajans are among the most literate and intelligent people in the world; yet for some reason we have a tendency to keep quiet about issues of public and moral outrage until the proverbial sh*t hits the fan. Such is the case with the sewage crisis in Barbados.
According to UNICEF and the World Health Organization (2008), 100% of our population has access to improved sanitation—but upon further investigation, one would find that what this really means is that we are not sharing public toilets and defecating in pits and buckets. One might consider whether this is fitting benchmark at our stage of development.
The UN/ WHO definition of improved sanitation is the “commendable” standard that has masked the fact that the vast majority of tax payers in this country have no access to a public sewage system— and never have— and that most of the waste that we produce never gets treated.
The panic and fury of the past few months have been fueled by misconceptions and half-truths. It is not to say that we should not be legitimately angry or afraid, but my premise here is that our current problems are more realistically attributable to a case of chickens coming home to roost rather than the breakdown of what was once an effective system.
The following are the top five misconceptions surrounding our lack of understanding and misplaced anger.
Misconception #1: Our sewage system is a centralized public system
Centralization occurs when public spending is funded by general taxation and all parishes receive a share in that public good. This is not applicable to our local sewage system. There is no access to centralized sewage treatment for the majority of the population, nor is there a public-private partnership that provides effective sewage treatment to the non-centrally serviced parts of the island.
Barbados has approximately 4,500 sewerage connections that serve less than 15 per cent of the population (Nurse et al., 2012). More than 85 per cent of the population (including those on the “Platinum” Coast of Barbados) rely on alternate, on-site wastewater treatment, which is largely inadequate in terms of managing conventional water pollutants such as nitrogen. Most of the waste from older homes is disposed into the subsurface and often end up in the marine environment.
Plans to construct a tertiary treatment plant on the West coast, which would serve a further 15 per cent of the island and would treat and reuse water for various purposes— an essential and forward looking technology for a water scarce country— have never gone beyond the planning phase.
The South Coast sewage crisis is not the real public health and environmental scandal; the actual atrocity is that this country has never had an effective publicly managed system in place to deal with the liquid waste of the vast majority of its population.
Misconception #2: We treat our liquid waste
Minister of Water Resource Management, Dr David Estwick, has been promising that the huge pile of doodoo that has come to surface on his portfolio would eventually be treated and reused via tertiary treatment methods. Said Estwick, “We have to stop moving to treat water and sending it out into the ocean. We are moving to treat our sewage and our effluents to tertiary standards and then introduce acquifer recharge. No longer will we be sending three-million gallons of water into the ocean that can be brought back on land to supplement the water in our acquifers.”
The minister is correct that we should be treating and reusing our water, but he is inaccurate in his assertion that we are currently treating it— only 10 per cent of sewage that Bajans create ends up in the public system and of this, less than half receives some degree of treatment. Currently the only plant that treats water to a secondary level is that in Bridgetown which serves just over a thousand Bajans (12 per cent of the Bridgetown area) and has a capacity of approximately 9,000 cubic meters/day. The South Coast plant services more than twice the amount of people but is a primary plant and does not treat waste.
In 2014, David Estwick went on record to say of the South Coast Plant, “I think it was an error to have built the plant at a primary stage. A primary stage plant is nothing more than a filter. So all you are doing is taking up rocks and sludge. So you fooling yourself that you treating the water.”
Untreated sewage may contain nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus; solids including organic matter, pathogens such as bacteria and viruses, worms and parasites and toxic chemicals.
Misconception #3: Our water was not polluted before the sewage crisis
Most people would remember in 2016 when Minister of Tourism Richard Sealy and Minister of Health John Boyce were seen diving in the waters at Worthing Beach, in an effort to reassure the public that the water was “safe”. What they failed to understand was that those waters were polluted long before the public outcry that they were trying to suppress.
The primary local source of land-based pollution of the marine environment is actually sewage from domestic septic wells that is untreated and often contains a range of chemicals, nitrates and phosphates, all of which pose a threat to human health and marine life— this is the method of waste management used by the majority of the population.
Nitrates have been a major concern for Barbados’ groundwater for some time (Burnside, 2011) and according to the Barbados Water Authority, levels have been rising throughout the island. The World Health Organization’s limit of 10 mg/L has been exceeded in certain areas of the island with one sample in St. Michael showing a reading of 18.1 mg/L in 2009.
Further evidence that our waters have been contaminated for a long time appears in a study conducted in 2003 that found that our coral reefs have been impacted by eutrophication, an enrichment of water by nutrient salts that has caused structural changes to the ecosystem off the Barbados coastline. (Linton & Warner).
Misconception #4: The prevalence of gastroenteritis is alarming as compared to previous periods
Based on syndromic surveillance, the number of gastroenteritis (AGE) cases reported to date is no higher than usual for this time of year; viral gastrointestinal illness has been shown to peak in the winter. Barbados’ average annual incidence is approximately 650 cases of AGE per 100,000 population; the economic burden has been crudely estimated to be as much as 16.5 million Barbados dollars (US$ 8.26 million) annually.
Misconception #5: The South Coast Treatment Plant is dated
In his discussions with the media, Estwick has indicated that “significant” development has occurred in the South coast area since the 1990s when the current sewage plant was constructed. He has attributed this boom to the deterioration of the distribution network and the failure of support structures.
These statements are not entirely accurate.
Although the South coast sewage project did indeed begin in the latter part of the 1990’s, the piping system was actually constructed in 2002 and the South coast sewage system became operational in 2003, which is not old for an infrastructural project.
The south coast system was designed and constructed to accommodate up to 3,000 domestic and commercial connections, and has never served at its full capacity; at present it only services approximately 2,500 connections.
There was a great deal of controversy surrounding logistics and operations during the procurement and construction phase of the South Coast project. One might speculate whether the real issue is that the system was substandard to begin with.
So there you have it.
Bajans do have a right to be angry but, moreso, for the fact that we have been operating under the misconception that things have all of a sudden gone askew. The sh*t that intoxicates our senses and our emotions has been bubbling under the lid of a dysfunctional pot for quite some time.
There is a lot of sh*t to be angry about— but, you should have been angry a long time ago.