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Key takeaway: Waste-water reuse is a viable option for the Caribbean, but the implementation of projects is hampered by low political will, lower public acceptance and poorly-maintained infrastructure in many Caribbean countries

IN GENERAL, most Caribbean countries rely on groundwater, surface water or rainwater harvesting to meet potable water demands, as well as water demands for agricultural, industrial and sewerage purposes.

Water security in the Caribbean is threatened partly by climate change by way of sea level rise, water contamination and drought. As a result, alternative sources of water have to be secured in order to guarantee adequate potable water availability. And while waste-water reuse has emerged as a possible means of achieving water security, gaining public consent to the concept has proving to be difficult.

Marine pollution without waste-water treatment: Currently in the Caribbean, around 85% of untreated waste-water is discharged into seas, rivers and bays. Depending on the territory, such waste-water comes from a mix of oil refineries, sugar factories, domestic sewage, food and beverage processing and manufacturing operations.

According to a study by the Caribbean Sea Ecosystem Assessment (CARSEA), this type of land-based marine pollution has been proven to be the most pervasive source of coastal contamination, along with sewerage pollution from ships.  For these reasons, waste-water reuse is being discussed as not only a practical method of ensuring efficient use of potable water, but also as a method of avoiding marine degradation.

Political and populist challenges: The Caribbean Regional Fund for Waste-water Management (CReW) project has reported difficulties in gaining institutional and legislative support, public and private sector partnerships, and resources to establish waste-water reuse in the Caribbean.

The project, funded through the Global Environment Facility (GEF), is intended to begin in Jamaica, Guyana, Belize and Trinidad and Tobago. It will be implemented by the Inter-American Development Bank and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and aims to assist countries to support policy, knowledge building and financing mechanisms for waste-water use and management.

But it takes time. At the 2014 Caribbean Water and Waste-water Association Conference held in The Bahamas, acting Project Coordinator, Alfredo Coello Vazquez, told the Jamaica Gleaner, “if we are dealing with enacting regulations, drafting regulations and we [also] have social and political issues… we have to take time. We cannot push too much because we risk a break and that is no good.”

Challenges of knowledge and poor infrastructure: The 2012 Final Report of the Waste-water Management in the Wider Caribbean Region: Knowledge, Attitudes and Practice (KAP) Study revealed that 62% of the Caribbean’s decision- makers are not adequately knowledgeable on waste-water management issues and 38% have a only a moderate knowledge of these same issues.

Waste-water treatment is viewed as a low priority and many Caribbean countries have yet to ascertain a long-term approach to waste-water management. The study also showed that 81% of countries in the Wider Caribbean Region have poor practices when it comes to sanitation and waste-water infrastructure. Many countries, in fact, have not upgraded their infrastructure since its initial development, for example in Grenada where infrastructure developed in the 1920’s is still in use, although it can no longer handle the increased volume of waste-water produced.

The value of waste-water investment: Christopher Corbin, Programme Officer with the Division of Environmental Policy Implementation at UNEP, says that a resource valuation study will be implemented by CReW to demonstrate the importance of investing in waste-water treatment. In explaining the US$200,000 study, Corbin said “we are trying to make a more economic case for why you should have investments in waste-water and it is linking it to issues like education, economic development, sustainable tourism, and private sector investment. So it is making a case that waste-water is not simply money that you spend without any possibility of return.”

A planned demonstration project to influence public perception will be implemented in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), to demonstrate how waste-water can be treated and reused to become a feasible option in combating the region’s water concerns.

Furthermore, as Corbin said, “it is very timely now because of the situation with the drought, especially in many islands of the Caribbean. This could be seen as a viable alternative to using potable water for irrigation purposes.”

Image credit: Pam Broviak

Is waste-water reuse possible in the Caribbean?

Sophia Longsworth

Sophia is a Grenadian residing in the United States. She holds an MPH and an MSc. in Natural Resource and Environmental Management, and has research interests in the impact of the environment on public health.

Category: Sustainability