Chalillo Dam

Did a dam cause a water surge ending in multiple deaths?

(May 7, 2014) Did a rise in Belize’s Macal River, due to the routine release of water from a Fortis-owned upstream dam, as part of its daily operations, cause multiple deaths by drowning in recent weeks?

Belize: The drowning of two students from Mexico in early April, and the drowning of another young man in late April, all coinciding at around the same time in the afternoon, has sparked speculation that a surge of water released from the Canadian-owned Vaca Dam on the Macal River, as part of its normal daily operations, was partly to blame for sweeping the victims to their deaths. Environmental activists George and Candy Gonzalez, longtime champions of the Macal and active monitors of the impacts of hydroelectric projects along the waterway, say the failure to implement and test an early warning system a short siren blast to warn downstream communities of the routine rise in the river due to dam water releases would save lives. They also say frequent testing of an early warning system would accustom downstream communities to leave the river whenever they heard a long siren, which would signal a catastrophic dam break.

The Gonzalez’ have campaigned government bodies in Belize for some time to implement risk management programs for dams on the Macal River, owned by the Canadian company, Fortis Inc., as well as to monitor and test for mercury levels in fish caught in the Macal and E. coli levels in the river’s water.

The following is a letter to the editor by the Gonzalez’ addressing the recent drowning deaths.

Did the water surge from Macal cause three deaths?

By George and Candy Gonzalez, published by the Amandala newspaper on April 30, 2014

Dear Editor,

It is sad that it takes dead bodies to bring attention to the potential for disaster created by the lack of a workable dam break early warning system for the Chalillo, Vaca and Mollejon dams. It only takes talking to people in the area to realize that there is no general knowledge of what to do if the dam breaks.

It took the deaths of two students from Corozal – Egar Puck and Anahi Zepeda, who “were swept off into depths” of the Macal and drowned, to learn that BECOL releases water from the dams, which causes a rise in the water levels in the area of the bridges connecting San Ignacio and Santa Elena.

According to Stephen Usher, BECOL’s Vice President of Operations, interviewed after the death of the two students earlier this month, Vaca Dam releases water to generate electricity that reaches San Ignacio around 4:00 p.m. But why didn’t the public know that information? Just prior to the death of the students, there were two other drownings, one in the Macal River and one a little downstream at Santa Familia where the Macal meets the Mopan River.

Over Easter, another drowning occurred in the Belize River, close to Santa Familia.

And just this weekend, a young man, Johnatan Requeña, drowned around 3:40 p.m. on Saturday, close to the time the two students drowned earlier this month. According to a police press release, a friend who was with him saw, “when Requena jumped into the water and immediately saw him begin struggling and going under as he fought to stay above water.”

If we had an early warning system, it could be tested daily by warning people that there will be a rise in the river due to release of water from the dams. This would serve the purpose of familiarizing the public about the siren and what it meant and regularly testing to make sure the sirens worked.

An education program could let people know that, for instance, a short blast of the siren means the water is approaching the populated area. A long, steady blast of the siren means a major flood or dam break incident.

Something like that, which does not take a brain scientist to figure out, could effectively inform, sensitize and continually test a warning system that should have been in place since 2005 according to two Supreme Court decisions. The Court’s directives about informing the public about eating the fish high in mercury and problems with drinking or being in the river have been discontinued as far as we know.

Would the drownings have been prevented had there been a warning in place? From police and news reports, we know that close to 4 p.m. a strong current pulled at least 3 of those who died, under at the time Stephen Usher, BECOL’s Vice President of Operations, said is when the water comes down from the dams. Would they still be alive if these simple warning steps were taken?

George and Candy Gonzalez
BELPO members and Cayo residents

For more on the Macal River controversy, see the Probe International news archive here.


Did water surges at the Vaca Dam contribute to multiple drowning?

Did surge of water from Vaca Dam factor into double drowning?

BECOL warning system failed

Fighting for compliance again: Belize’s Macal River


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