By Earl Bousquet
After four years of continuous research for a common natural solution to a natural problem equally affecting their environments, five Caribbean islands have developed a natural formula using a widespread Caribbean flower to treat wastewater and better manage the entire region’s wetlands.
It’s a project like those that show how everyday things are taken for granted or even treated as a nuisance – like this abundant and attractive tropical flower found everywhere in the Caribbean that simply never stops growing, gets put in a vase and replaced whenever it wilts and vendors sell by the roadside on a busy Saturdays, but which, like others, has many useful but unknown uses.
Called ‘Birds of Paradise’, it’s found all over the region in Dominica and Guadeloupe, Martinique and Saint Lucia (Eastern Caribbean ‘Windward’ and ‘Leeward’ islands sharing common geography and cultures but different languages) and in 2017 joined the region’s largest island, Cuba, to share in a sub-regional project with much potential for the wider Caribbean region.
And now, they’re Good-to-Go and ready to roll
The project – aimed at marrying various natural elements with the abundant abilities of a flower that can work modern miracles for the treatment of wastewater – is being coordinated in the five islands, funded by Europe with the cooperation of Saint Lucian based Caribbean Water and Sewerage Authority (CAWASA).
The Caribbean Sanitation (CARIBSAN) Project is funded by the European Union INTERREG Programme, the international water office of France and the water offices of Martinique and Guadeloupe has been long in the making.
Largely funded by France in its Caribbean Overseas Departments (Guadeloupe and Martinique) it’s already at work in two areas in Martinique and participants in the five islands recently discussed how to implement it nationally and across the region.
Saint Lucia’s minister of infrastructure, physical development and urban renewal Stephenson King and Dominica’s minister for public works and the digital economy Cassani Laville, made presentations at the virtual launch of the two-day (September 27-28) Caribbean Sanitation Nature (CARIBSAN) project.
The online opening ceremony also heard from executive director, CAWASA Ignatius Jean, president of the Martinique water office Lucien Saliber, general manager of Saint Lucia’s Water and Sewage Company (WASCO) Edmund Regis, general manager of Dominica Water and Sewage Company (DOWASCO) Bernard Ettinoffe, official representatives from the EU INTERREG, AFD, OIEau, ODE Guadeloupe, INRH of Cuba and government officials from Dominica, Cuba, Martinique and Saint Lucia.
Minister’s King and Laville expressed their governments’ pleasure to be associated with the project and welcomed the opportunity to collaborate with neighbours from the French Overseas Departments in the Caribbean (Martinique and Guadeloupe) that are now Associate Members of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS). They also welcomed participation of Cuba’s Instituto Nacional de Recursos Hidraulicos (INRH) in the landmark project.
Tracing the history of the project, King recalled that in 2018, Saint Lucia and WASCO joined other Caribbean countries at the High-Level Forum (HLF) of ministers responsible for water at the Caribbean Water and Wastewater Association’s (CWWA’s) Annual Conference in Jamaica, where the HLF adopted the Regional Strategic Plan for Governance and Building Resilience in the Water Sector in the Caribbean (RSAP).
Noting that a key objective is to promote constructed wetlands for wastewater treatment and disseminate knowledge on the new technique, King observed it was consistent with the provisions of the regional strategic plan.
The Saint Lucia minister identified such consistencies as: “Effective management of wastewater, including its use as a resource in sectors such as tourism (landscape irrigation) and agriculture (irrigation and fertilizer); developing and executing a training programme (at the national and regional levels) to improve technical capacity in the government, the utility and the private sector, to understand and manage climate impacts on the water sector.”
Enhanced international cooperation
He also warned that “Enhanced international cooperation is crucial for all countries to combat climate change” and advised that “As a complementary way to address this global challenge, peer-to-peer partnerships in the water and sanitation sectors is necessary for undertaking traditional and innovative mitigation and adaptation modalities.”
Addressing Climate Change, the minister said it affects the life and resources of people globally in many ways, “but its impacts are particularly dire for us in the Caribbean – one of the most vulnerable regions in the world…”
He said water and sanitation utilities “are on the front lines of these challenges,” as “utilities are essential to meet Sustainable Development Goal #6 by delivering safe, affordable, accessible and sufficient water in addition to improving water quality, water use efficiency, watershed protection and sanitation.”
According to King, the importance of treating wastewater extends beyond human and ecosystem health, as “it can contribute to the long-term economic viability of our Caribbean economies due to our dependence upon the coastal tourism and fisheries industries.”
Senator Laville made a similar front-line connection, saying, “I know that I would be speaking to converted, if I were to say that Water and Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) — as we say — is a first line of defense against COVID-19 and many other diseases, as well as preventing the spread of anti-microbial resistance, which is growing in importance as a global threat.”
The senator also saluted workers in the water and sewerage sectors, “who have been at the frontlines of this war on COVID-19, for their courage and patriotism.”
Underlining the frontline aspect of their work, the senator said, “This COVID-19 pandemic has reiterated the maxim that no one must be left behind: when some people are left unprotected, it leaves all at risk. We must look out for each other.”
The minister suggested that as the five islands seek to minimize pollution of their natural waterways and coastal waters, their hope that “the models already tested by the Water Offices in Martinique and Guadeloupe will assist us in carefully monitoring the biological and chemical processes in cleaning wastewater before it is returned to natural waterways.”
Therefore, he and his Dominica counterpart both welcomed the opportunity for water operators at WASCO and DOWASCO “to be mentored in the use of alternative technologies in wastewater treatment such as a constructed Wetlands.”
Minister King said this new technology will be used as part of the treatment process for wastewater to contain or degrade pollutants, where land is available and noted that “a key benefit” of implementing such a natural treatment system for wastewater treatment “can be lower capital and operation and maintenance costs than other physical/chemical ‘grey’ wastewater treatment technologies.”
He also identified “the potential for co-benefits such as the creation of habitat, carbon storage, and the provision of recreational opportunities (e.g., birdwatching).”
Universal wastewater management
Minister King said Saint Lucia “is determined to confront the many challenges we face with wastewater management…” and is also “hopeful that this collaboration will support our strategic approach to achieve universal wastewater management on the island…”
Such management, he said, would be “based on public health and environmental quality goals, with specific wastewater management solutions to the different zones and problems of the island, where both conventional sewerage systems and alternative wastewater treatment and final disposal could be a solution for our dense urban areas, as well as our small coastal communities.”
Feedback and sharing
King noted that during the life of the project, “feedback, sharing of experiences and lessons learnt from our diverse group of stakeholders will assist us in assessing our situation and help inform future actions that will benefit the participating countries and utilities in particular and the Caribbean in general.”
He also reaffirmed Saint Lucia’s commitment to work with all stakeholders for its success.
The project was also welcomed by Dominica’s minister for public works senator Cassanni Laville. Noting (like King) that “water, sanitation and hygiene are fundamental to human development,” the senator said participating nations were “proud of having made good progress towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) – water and sanitation for all by 2030.”
According to Laville, “As we strive to build resilient countries, we are cognizant that healthy citizens and healthy environments are critical in that process. “It is imperative” that Caribbean people have better access to sanitation and water “to maintain good health, that in turn promotes a more productive workforce who can live more fully and contribute more to society.”
Laville said the project’s significance “cannot be understated, as it is not often that we have participated in multi-state, multi-agency and multi-lingual partnerships focusing on wastewater,” the senator anticipates “a seamless collaboration” resulting from the “long history of working and living with the French Overseas Departments… as well as our kinship with Saint Lucia and decades of friendship and cooperation with the good people and government of Cuba.”
Nature Isle’s target
“It is easy to understand why Dominica is the Nature Isle,” according to Laville, “However, for this to remain that way, we must actively work to protect and preserve our natural and built environment by carefully integrating the two.”
It is with this mindset, he said, that “Dominica set a target to be the world’s first climate-resilient nation within this decade.”
“This,” he said, “will allow maximum economic, social and environmental benefits for our people and the region.”
All about people
Laville, also responsible for the Dominica Water and Sewerage Company (DOWASCO), commend the five-island partnership saying: “All development is about people and there is no better way to transfer technologies than through such peer-to-peer exchanges among the people in our utilities – our operators.”
As a result, Laville added, “This is a prime opportunity for our operators at DOWASCO to learn from their peers at WASCO, the water offices of Martinique and Guadeloupe and the INHR of Cuba.”
The minister hoped the CARIBSAN Project will assist the region’s water and wetlands planners in some critical areas such as “Data collection on each territory with stakeholders and defining indicators; Elaboration of a co-constructed wetland method with DOWASCO; Testing the method locally; Updating the selection criteria for plant species in consultation with local biodiversity experts, and identification of biodiversity preservation challenges to adapt the design of the constructed wetlands to maintain important species habitat.”
The senator also advised that “Nature-based solutions – and specifically the eco-friendly technology of constructed wetlands, appears as an ideal option that can provide the desired added-values to ecosystem services and promote water circularity in our country.”
A natural fit
Minister Laville concluded by saying, “Dominica believes there is the necessity for new infrastructure that will meet the requirements for water treatment and sanitation – and that Nature-based solutions on a Nature Isle are a Natural Fit.”
The two-day online meeting was a quiet celebration of a great achievement by five Caribbean islands, nations and territories, assisted by regional water authorities and European financing, embracing the “multi-state, multi-agency and multi-lingual partnership” that the Dominica minister referred to.
The participants have married Nature with Nature like Birds-of-a-Feather through Flowers and Water, supported by lifelong natural elements to solve a problem common to the entire region, though as much caused by natural as unnatural means.
Where wastewater has been pumped into the sea and waste deposited in wetlands considered unworthy of even showing or noticing, it’s now possible to not only now start to save the Caribbean Sea from the ill-effects of continuous flushing with raw sewerage and wetlands can indeed now become beautiful places worth visiting – and learning from, all thanks to just one of the countless flowers that feather the Caribbean’s landscape.
It’s indeed another of those natural fits that the Caribbean has a way of connecting in time; and that – the newly-introduced natural art of Treating Wetlands with Birds of Paradise – is nothing short of another natural Caribbean phenomenon.