“The grass is green but there is no water in the ground”. That was and continues to be my constant refrain as a hydrogeologist as friends and family call and WhatsApp me for my opinion. Over the past several months, I’ve listened and read with intent regarding the water situation in Barbados, where several of our major aquifers are under stress or at their current specific capacity to produce groundwater. I’ve also read and heard of the complaints of my fellow Barbadians regarding the state of water supply in Barbados.
I consider it my duty to my country to use my expertise in hydrogeology, particularly specialties in saline intrusion, groundwater production, climate change, urban geography and economic geology, to explain the current circumstances that the Barbados Water Authority and by extension, Barbados, currently finds itself in.
Permit me to explain the general geology of Barbados. Barbados by nature is an accretionary prism which basically means it is a landmass created from sediment scraped off the ocean floor when the North American tectonic plate sinks beneath the Caribbean plate, and as a result, Barbados is completely sedimentary in nature and not created via volcanic means.
The aquifer system in Barbados is also relatively simple in comparison to our northern sister island of Jamaica. The aquifer system in Barbados consists of a coral limestone cap, which is up to 70 meters thick in some areas which overlays a confining unit of clay, the first of these units being the Scotland District formation.
The general water cycle of Barbados is – rain falls and seeps through the soil and through the limestone to reach our aquifers with some return water from agriculture also being added to the mix. This water then flows underground downhill towards the ocean. Evapotranspiration (ET) is also part of the water cycle where rainfall is taken up by the plants and then into the air around it; whatever the plants do not use is what is allowed to infiltrate into the aquifer. In simple terms, let’s call the rain the “gross recharge”, much like our gross salary, and the ET from plants is our income tax, and what actually seeps into the aquifer is the “net recharge”, or the salary that we actually get in our bank accounts.
As the Minister responsible for the Barbados Water Authority (BWA) recently mentioned, Sweetvale is one of the locations where the BWA pumps its water to feed some areas of Barbados. In my study of the hydrogeological system of Sweetvale, the area is essentially a highly efficient “bowl” where water flows from the surrounding areas into this “bowl” and owing to the high transmissivity rates in this area it can produce an extraordinary amount of water from a small area. However, this abstraction has its limits, and it is limited by the level of rainfall Barbados receives.
With Barbados caught in the throes of climate change, several climate models show Barbados receiving nearly 40 per cent less rainfall by the year 2040; add to the mix the increased numbers of “heat days” affecting Barbados’ hydrological cycle and the result will be increased ET, and thus, the decrease in groundwater recharge will surely be above 40 per cent.
As a result of this, here is where my constant refrain “the grass is green but there is no water in the ground” comes from. When it rains in Barbados, the landscape is beautiful and everything is green, but remember only what the plants don’t utilize or the “net recharge” is what flows into our aquifers. With the plants taking more because of increased “heat days” and the reduction in rainfall, the amount of water we can take from the ground sustainably without causing saline intrusion, or in simple terms, salt water moving into our freshwater aquifer, decreases at an exponential rate since the decrease is by no means linear.
Barbados now finds itself at a most critical stage. I once contributed to an article by invite from the Geological Society of Trinidad and Tobago Journal “The Hammer” for their October 2018 edition entitled “The Future of Hydrogeology in Karst Geology Region: A Case Study of Barbados Potable Water Supply”.
I argued that the situation is unattainable for the sustainable development of any nation, since we cannot continue to pump water at the rate we have been doing in the past without causing significant degradation in our water resources and thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now is the time to have serious discussions in Barbados regarding the future of our water supply while we still have the time to adapt to the challenges associated with climate change.
I will not sit and say that the process will be easy or by any means cheap, but as a society, if we want to have a reliable source of water, if we love the quality of life we enjoy in Barbados, we must diversify our sources and cut back our reliance on groundwater sources for our future development or suffer the fate of dry taps and predatory lenders and investors.
Now Barbados has the opportunity to demand concessions from lenders or investors on favourable terms because we still have a choice. However, if we wait until we have no choice, we will go into negotiations with no real alternative than to accept what they place before us. Now we have a choice; later we won’t and the cost of later is greater than the cost of now.
I love my country, my wish is to see it develop and be the best, a real giant among men. I do not intend to just wish from the sidelines but to put my hands to the proverbial plough. I stand ready to assist in whatever capacity I can.
Saashen Sealy is a Barbadian who currently works as a Hydrogeologist in the United States, currently being mentored by professional geologists in preparation for the Professional Geologist license exam. He is also a former employee of the Barbados Water Authority.