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A History of Untreated Sewage Sours Tobago’s Waters

Tobago, an island in the Eastern Caribbean, is endowed with lovely beaches, lush tropical forests and stunning marine life—a paradise for bird watchers, scuba divers and sun worshipers. It is a key eco-tourist destination, attracting more than 20,000 international arrivals in 2015, with tourism contributing nearly half of GDP that year.

The natural amenities that attract these visitors rely on clean water and healthy ecosystems—both of which are in jeopardy due to Tobago’s inadequate treatment of wastewater, including sewage. More than 80 percent of the Caribbean’s wastewater enters the ocean untreated, spurring the growth of algae on coral reefs and increasing the risk of ear infections for swimmers and divers, among other issues. Many residents, business owners, environmental NGOs and government officials have been aware of this problem for more than 20 years, but there has been little action by the government.  

From 1990 to Today: A Wastewater Problem Ignored

My first visit to Tobago, Trinidad’s sleepy sister island, was in the early 1990s. I came to Tobago to relax—or “lime” as the locals say, and experience the island’s many charms. Two-thirds of the island is of volcanic origin—steep and forested—while southern Tobago is flat and low-lying, formed by ancient coral reefs. About half of the island is fringed by corals, but the most significant reef is Southwest Tobago’s Buccoo Reef and lagoon complex, a World Heritage and Ramsar site. The Buccoo Reef is famous for its glass-bottom boat and snorkel trips, an activity that draws more than 60 percent of the island’s visitors.

My second trip to Tobago was in 2005 for work. WRI’s coastal research team had begun a new project called Coastal Capital to develop a pragmatic, standardized means of estimating the annual economic contribution of coastal ecosystems (such as coral reefs) to the local economy. Tobago was our first pilot site, and we developed a partnership with the Tobago House of Assembly (THA), several NGOs, the University of the West Indies and the national Water and Sewage Authority (WASA). During our first visit, WASA told us that the government of Trinidad and Tobago was negotiating a loan with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) for “the Sewering of SW Tobago,” a project that would radically improve wastewater treatment in the area. Local stakeholders regarded this as vital action, as the Buccoo Reef was already degraded, displaying noticeably reduced live coral cover, due to high nutrient input and poor water quality from wastewater discharge.  

Our research in Tobago focused on determining the annual economic contribution of coral reef-associated fisheries, tourism and shoreline protection in the form of reduced erosion and flooding. We also looked at the potential impacts if the Buccoo Reef degraded further. Because this reef protects a large, low-lying, developed section of Tobago, we found its shoreline protection value to be very high, with avoided damages estimated to be between $140 and $250 million over a 25-year period. We also estimated the economic contribution of tourism and recreation associated with the Buccoo Reef to be between $7.2 and $8.8 million per year (in 2006).  When we released this analysis in 2007, the government of Trinidad and Tobago was still negotiating the loan and planning the Sewering of SW Tobago project.

In 2014, I returned to Tobago for another research project, this one focused on wastewater. The UNEP-Caribbean Environment Program asked WRI to develop a method for comparing the costs and benefits of investment in wastewater treatment. Under the Global Environment Facility – Caribbean Regional Fund for Wastewater Management (GEF CReW) project, Trinidad and Tobago and Panama were pilot countries for economic valuation, and the government selected SW Tobago as one of the project sites. To my surprise, the Sewering project had still not gone forward, and WASA was planning a less-expensive solution for reducing wastewater pollution.

WASA provided a tour of the planned infrastructure improvements, and shared detailed engineering plans and cost estimates, explaining that the project was slated to begin in three months. But, there was a catch: Not all the land required had been acquired, and the project was not yet funded. The stakeholders at the workshop we hosted—made up of tourism operators, residents and environmental NGOs—expressed their support for the project, but also their frustration by 20 years of talk about improving wastewater treatment in SW Tobago. The lack of action seems short-sighted: Our analysis of the relative merits of this investment in sewage treatment suggests that the benefits (to ecosystem condition, human health and tourism reputation) significantly exceed the costs. The qualitative assessment shows that the ratio of benefits to costs is about 12:7.

A Beautiful Island Hangs in the Balance

Meanwhile, coastal pollution continues to degrade the Buccoo Reef, high nutrient levels promote growth of algae, and bacterial pollution puts swimmers at risk  of infections.

Tobago draws tourists with its beautiful beaches, alluring aqua water and vibrant marine life. The discharge of untreated wastewater is at odds with this vision.  Tobago’s tourism industry—and the island’s beauty—are at stake. Will these growing risks finally prompt the government to take action?

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