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Beneath the Caribbean Sea, a Wastewater Problem Lurks Unnoticed

The Caribbean has long been hailed as a vacationer’s paradise, with its coral reefs, bioluminescent bays, white sand beaches and rainforests. Yet there’s a problem lurking beneath the sparkling sea—untreated wastewater.

Only 15 percent of wastewater entering the Caribbean Sea is currently being treated, and only 17 percent of Caribbean households are connected to acceptable collection and treatment systems. The majority of the region’s wastewater spews right into the sea, bringing with it pollutants like nutrients, fecal matter, toxins, pharmaceuticals, oil and more. 

Part of the reason Caribbean governments have not addressed the wastewater issue is because they lack data on how wastewater pollution is impacting ecosystems and human health, or what realistic solutions exist.

That’s why WRI recently worked with the Caribbean Regional Fund for Wastewater Management (GEF CReW) Project to improve the region’s understanding of the wastewater issue and provide a resource to assist countries in making a stronger case for investments in wastewater treatment.

Digging Deeper into the Caribbean’s Wastewater Problem

Working with GEF CReW partners (the Global Environment Facility, UN Environment Programme and Inter American Development Bank) and the governments of Trinidad and Tobago and Panama, WRI developed an economic valuation resource guide and piloted it in three sites: Chaguanas, Trinidad; Southwest Tobago; and Isla Colon, Panama. The guide is intended to help policymakers and other officials examine the trade-offs of the costs of investing in improved wastewater management infrastructure and maintenance with the benefits to ecosystems and human health. Our findings underscore the direness of the wastewater problem:

  • Only 12-15 percent of the population in Southwest Tobago and Chaguanas is connected to a centralized wastewater treatment facility, and about 80 percent in Isla Colon.  The remaining population uses on-site wastewater treatment like septic tanks and pit latrines. However, untreated wastewater is frequently released in all three sites due to poorly maintained and outdated infrastructure and unplanned (and oftentimes unauthorized) development.
  • Wastewater pollution is degrading ecosystems for areas critical for ecotourism, and creating negative human health impacts. While the full extent of the damage is unknown due to lack of data, we found concerning problems in all three study sites. Isla Colon’s wastewater treatment plant is located adjacent to indigenous peoples’ informal settlements. During periods of high rainfall, untreated wastewater and the pollutants it contains are released directly into these areas. Wastewater pollution is also degrading the Buccoo Reef, the Nylon Pool and the Caroni Swamp, popular sites for swimming, snorkeling, boating and fishing in Trinidad and Tobago.  Health problems linked with wastewater pollution in Panama and Trinidad and Tobago include gastroenteritis and ear and eye infections.

Working Toward a Solution

The stakes are high. In addition to the potential threats to human and ecosystem health, tourism and travel represent 14.6 percent of the Caribbean’s GDP and 13 percent of its total employment. A threat to marine ecosystems is a direct threat to the economic and physical well-being of the region. 

The economic valuation resource guide points to solutions.

Preliminary results for the three pilot areas indicate that these issues could be addressed by updating wastewater management systems and connecting more people to centralized wastewater treatment plants. While the pilot areas lacked sufficient data to complete a quantitative analysis, stakeholders were still able to weigh the costs and benefits of wastewater treatment. Each site demonstrated that the benefits to human health, ecosystems and local economies were greater than treatment costs.

Moving forward, policymakers, environment ministers, economists and others throughout the Caribbean can use the report to evaluate wastewater treatment costs and benefits in their own communities by using either cost-benefit analysis or multi-criteria analysis. The guide can also help decision-makers weigh the trade-offs between wastewater infrastructure investment types, such as natural infrastructure (like conservation of wetlands) vs. engineered infrastructure (such as wastewater treatment facilities). With the right tools—and the right data—policymakers can protect the Caribbean’s citizens, ecosystems and economy from the perils of untreated wastewater.

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