Belize is a country of contrasts, with the Maya Mountains rising to over 1,800 metres, while the Great Blue Hole part of the Barrier Reef Reserve System falls to a depth of 124 metres. The only English-speaking country in Central America and home to a mix of communities including indigenous Maya, Garifuna, Creole, Mestizo and more recently Amish and Mennonites. Independent since 1981, but claimed by Guatemala based on a 1786 Convention, its colonial history differs from that of other Caribbean countries, in that its main economic interest was logging and not plantation based. Whilst commercial logging has declined in importance, agriculture plays an important part in the overall economy, though services such as tourism are the most important contributor to the economy. Belize is fortunate to have ample water resources, the average annual renewable water resource per person is over 60,000 m3, only a fraction of which is used by a growing population of 440,000.
With all this going for it you could be forgiven for thinking that the future is bright for the country. However, a combination of poorly controlled development, weak enforcement regimes, and the increasing challenge of the climate crisis point to serious challenges ahead. During my recent visit to Belmopan in October, daytime temperatures peaked at 35°C, falling to 29°C at night, 5°C higher than the average maximum temperature at this time of year. Nor does it rain despite it being rainy season, with streams and creeks running dry and crops wilting. Although Belize still retains over 60% of forest cover over its land area -significantly higher than neighbouring countries - deforestation rates are almost double those of other Central American countries. Recent studies indicate that forests are being cleared for cropland and pastures, spurred on by a rising rural population and little control over land use. Martín-Arias et al. (2022) looked at the impact of a combination of climate change and deforestation on water resources and the conclusions made for uncomfortable reading. Under a worst-case scenario, stream flows in the north of the country, where much of the population is located and agro-production is highest, could decrease by as much as 80% by 2090 in some catchments.
Deforestation is not the only stressor affecting water resources. Forest fires are an increasing concern. Fires have been prevalent in the pineland savannah areas, and controlled fires are used as part of milpa agriculture practiced by Maya farmers. But the increasing temperatures, the use of fire to clear land, and the build-up of dead vegetation has been intensifying fire risk. Hurricanes which bring down trees and strip forests of vegetation add additional fuel, with some of the most serious forest fires having followed hurricane events. Worryingly, fires are increasingly occurring in the broadleaved forests which previously were not prone to fires. The aftermath of fires negatively affects both water quality and runoff, something the country’s hydropower producers are becoming increasingly concerned about. And if that was not enough, the higher temperatures create favourable conditions for the spread of invasive species such as the pine bark beetle which have killed off thousands of hectares of mountain pine forest.
But all is not lost. Belize has a well-developed system of parks and protected areas. The National Parks System Act designated a system of national parks, nature reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, forest reserves, bird sanctuaries, archaeological reserves and private reserves. The largest private reserve protects just over 4% of the country’s land area. Belize has also pioneered the development of co-management of protected areas, supported in part through the governments Protected Areas Conservation Trust (PACT). Co-management agreements run from an initial five years for new entrants to up to 60-year co-management agreements with established NGOs and others. These are being funded by a mix traditional and innovative financial instruments such as Blue Bonds, Carbon Credits, Debt-for-Nature swops. Up until recently, the main focus of the management of protected areas appears to have been on conservation and protection of the environment. The link with integrated water resources management, although sometimes acknowledged, was tenuous.
That situation is starting to change. During a recent visit to Belize as part of the development of a National Adaptation Plan for Integrated Water Resources Management, several private sector businesses expressed concern over the evolving impact of climate change on their water security. The main emerging concern was over impacts on water quality which have become more visible over the last decade; increasing levels of salinity requiring more expensive treatment, and sediment loads affecting the performance and maintenance of equipment. Such is the degree of concern that these businesses started to invest in watershed protection measures. They are doing so by partnering with environmental NGOs and others to set up and fund the management and reforestation of newly protected conservation areas. Their aim is to conserve and enhance water yields, boosting ecosystem services and benefiting biodiversity. So here we see a shift away from narrow conservation to a more integrated management approach with multiple benefits.
Up until recently those involved in the water sector in Belize have consistently said that there should be a more integrated approach to water resources management and the management of watersheds. But there has been lack of funds, expertise, human resources and political to make it happen. The National Adaptation Plan for Water is an opportunity to explore how to address the deficiencies, to have a more integrated approach to the management of land and water resources and create opportunities to encourage partnerships with the private sector that benefit the economy, society and the environment.
Dr Adrian Cashman has over 40 years of experience in the water sector and has been working in the Caribbean for the past 16 years, first with the University of the West Indies (UWI) and more recently as an water management consultant. At UWI he led the water resources management programme in the Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES. At CERMES he trained and mentored many postgraduate students who have gone on to play important roles in the water sector across the Region. Prior to moving to the Caribbean, he was a Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield’s Water Centre working on asset management. From 1982 until 1998 he worked in Namibia with the Department of Water Affairs as Director of Water Operations and also Civil Design. He has a first degree in Civil Engineering, a Masters degree in Environmental Economics and a Doctorate in Social Science.
Dr Cashman’s published works cover a diverse range of fields, and he has worked with a wide range of international and regional organisations on water and climate related matters. In 2020 he received the Caribbean Water and Wastewater Associations Gold Award for services to the Caribbean water sector.