A tale of two sewage treatment debates, in Canada and Honduras

La Prensa
I've been following two sewage treatment debates this week, in Victoria, where I used to live, and San Pedro Sula, about three hours from our home in Copan Ruinas.
There are unhappy people in both cities.
I'm convinced B.C.'s capital region needs to treat its sewage. The 2006 scientific panel report on the issue was disappointing for its lack of precision, but it found seabed contamination at the waste outfalls had been documented, sewage plumes that currently rise to the surface are health risks and claims that the waste proves an environmental threat can't be scientifically refuted. "Prudent public policy" would see work on treatment begin, it concluded. (There has been lots of debate about the report; read it for yourself here.)
But the need is a heck of a lot more pressing in San Pedro Sula, Hondura's commercial centre with some 1.3 million people (and amazing murder rate). Sewage and waste just gets dumped, mostly in two rivers that flow into the Caribbean. That's bad news for the people living downstream, including some 165,000 in Puerto Cortes.
La Prensa has been writing about the troubled sewage treatment project this week. It started in 2000, when the city signed a deal with an Italian consortium to upgrade the water system and create a sewage treatment system. In return, the company would get operating rights for 30 years and recover its costs and make a profit by charging users.
Which makes the capital region's project, with up to two-thirds of the costs covered by the provincial and federal governments, look like a pretty good deal.
In a poor country, there is little money for infrastructure. Honduras is on a tight debt limit imposed by the IMF in return for setting up a line of credit. Borrowing is out of the question.
The plan could have worked, maybe. Water service has apparently improved.
Except for the problems with sewage treatment. The schedule called for the first stage to done in 2007, and the next in 2010. That would give the company 23 years to make its money by charging customers before its 30-year concession ran out.
But the city couldn't find the three sites needed for treatment plants. (Sound familiar, Victorians?) There were other snags, and, as things stand, completion won't happen before 2018.
That leaves just 13 years for the company to make its money, and rates would, as a result have to be 70 per cent higher than projected. The median income in San Pedro Sula is about $450 a month; any extra costs are a problem.
And at the same time, cost estimates have climbed from $70 million to $180 million, also meaning higher rates. (A development that should make CRD residents nervous, since provincial and federal contributions are capped - any problems or unexpected costs will be picked up by residents.)
So what happens, beyond political finger-pointing? Who knows. Some politicians want a search for international donors. That happened in Tegucigalpa, the capital, where the European Union funded a sewage plant and an Italian group got the contract.
Meanwhile, the sewage keeps flowing. And, as in Victoria, the federal environment department has given the city until 2013 to fix things, which is not going to happen.
Meanwhile, back in B.C., Green party leader Jane Sterk has weighed in with an interesting oped piece in the Times Colonist. Sterk says sewage treatment should be postponed - not cancelled - until the region the fixes the failing storm water system, which would reduce the scale of treatment. Water conservation should be a priority, again to cut he treatment needed. The delay, she adds, would allow better technology to reduce the environmental and physical footprint of the treatment plants and and more resource recovery as part of the process.
It's a credible argument, but the process is likely too far advanced - and federal and provincial governments too committed - for the project to be derailed now.
And as San Pedro Sula has learned, the longer you delay, the more these things cost.


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