Environmental Threats
and Challenges

What Goes In - Also Must Come Out!
Update: The Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) has approved funds for a sewage system for the entire Peninsula Peninsula.  Engineers without Borders developed a sewage system plan for the Peninsula in 2006, but the passage of time may make that system obsolete and IADB is currently taking bids for an update of the proposed system -- or a completely new system design.

Draft Final Report, Feasibility Study for the Placencia Peninsula Pilot Wastewater Management System, 20 January 2012 (Halcrow, Inc.)

Appendix to Draft Report
The Placencia Peninsula has no sewage system.  Except for resorts that are required to install and operate their own sewage treatment plants, business and residential sewage is contained by individual septic tanks -- or in some cases, disposal of night waste directly into the Lagoon or Sea.

This wasn't a problem when a few hundred people lived on the entire Peninsula.  But now?  Well, sewage is a problem, and it is only going to get worse.


Not to put too fine a point on it, much of the water we “consume” is not “consumed” at all.  Our bodies process or use it to make cells, and to carry various nutrients (via the blood) and waste products through our bodies and out (via urine).

Unfortunately, the raw liquid urine (let’s call it waste shall we?) which is mainly water, contains a cocktail of chemicals and byproducts from the frighteningly complicated business of keeping our bodies alive and growing. Chemicals in this waste come from our intake of food and drink, from tobacco if we smoke, from medicines when we are sick, and even from the air we breathe. The good news is that potentially harmful as this waste is, it is sterile and contains no pathogens in a normal healthy human. 

However, the solid waste from the human body is another matter. This solid waste is mainly composed of materials that cannot be broken down fully in the body during their transit time through the gut, plus by-products from the digestive process.  Unfortunately, as it exits our bodies, the solid waste carries with it some of the bacteria which are used in the gut to effect breakdown and absorption of the foods etc we ingest. 

These bacteria (such as the famous E. coli) are perfectly safe deep in our bodies and engaged in the digestion process.  However if/when any are carried outside the body, they can become a very serious threat to our health.  A bacteria like E. coli - a major cause of food poisoning - can even become a life threatening pathogen in extreme cases.  Prevention of this is, of course, the basis of good bathroom hygiene, but that’s another story. Suffice to say, in contrast to liquid waste, solid waste poses a direct threat to human health if it is allowed to contaminate the human food chain in any way.

The nature of the chemicals leaving our bodies varies from simple things like salt, to very complex amino acids, and even hormones from food. The two forms of waste, solid and liquid are normally collected together and subjected to treatment which makes them safe to discharge.

The problem is that every man, woman, and child on the planet contributes to this waste every day of their lives.  So incidentally do all mammals, fish, etc. The composition is highly dependent on lifestyle as well as what is being consumed, deliberately or unintentionally.

This waste must be treated as it can cause severe damage if it gets into water courses or the sea, or anywhere where it might re-enter the human food chain.

Any animal drinking such water could reintroduce the pathogens back into the human food chain with disastrous results for man.  This waste, besides being a danger in itself, may be a breeding ground for disease and for insects like mosquitoes and flies which can spread diseases and contaminants amongst people.

So what do we do about this?  Well, fortunately, many largely successful ways of treating this waste have been developed.  Basically waste has to be broken down by bacteria, sometimes in the presence of air (aerobic), sometimes in its absence (anaerobic).  By the time the breakdown process is finished in a septic tank, or a digester, we are left with a liquid which can be safely allowed to run out into the surrounding land and dispersed, and with a sediment which can often be used as a soil booster.  The key thing is that the breakdown process must be allowed to finish so that any pathogens or chemicals are broken down before the liquid is released.

How does PCSD fit into this?  Well, the quality of the sewerage disposal processing system cannot be compromised wherever the location.  The system may require electricity and piping systems which must be capable of withstanding storms and excess water ingress.  The proposed effluent discharge area must be such as to avoid any contamination.  This is an area often overlooked but is critical to long term safety of residents.  Problems can build up over a long period of time and suddenly a health issue arises.  This issue may affect residents of the development itself, or nearby communities, as when for example untreated sewage is discharged into the sea.  It may be absorbed by fish (lobsters and shellfish like conchs are particularly prone to absorption of pathogens) and people eating such contaminated food may become sick and even die.

Part of the problem PCSD faces is not so much willful neglect or unviable treatment schemes (although we have seen both proposed),  but sheer lack of knowledge amongst not only the general public, but more surprisingly, by the developers themselves.

In a country like Belize with its low population density, these issues are not well-known because pollution tends to be slight and passes unnoticed.  However when the population density rises, as is starting to happen on the Peninsula, the dynamics change and cross contamination is far more likely.

PCSD believes that this clear threat to public health is of particular concern in our Lagoon which is bordered by an ever increasing number of new developments all discharging  sewerage somewhere.  All their discharges either drain into the sea or the Lagoon ultimately. For obvious reasons, many are not anxious to disclose how their sewage is being treated, and little or no testing of water quality is being done.  What little there is appears not to be in the public domain.  We wonder why.

We will continue to campaign for openness on this issue and for enforceable standards to be set and rigidly applied to all new developments.  


Peninsula Citizens for Sustainable Development

General Delivery
Placencia, Belize