Hydrological Report PDF Print E-mail

Progress and Constraints in Developing Integrated Water Resources Management in Belize      

Ramon Frutos

Hydrology Unit

National Meteorological Service of Belize




6 August 2003    

1.0    Background  

Belize has been uniquely endowed with substantial surface and groundwater resources. A dependable tropical/subtropical rainfall regime in the Northwest Caribbean region replenishes the freshwater resource after extended dry periods, which are often induced by recurrent atmospheric / oceanic phenomena such as El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), and feedback mechanisms associated with Climate Change.  However, increase in demands for freshwater resulting from increasing population, economic activity and agricultural expansion are threatening the quality and availability of freshwater. Coupled with this is the added stress on the resource induced by increasing climatic variability witnessed during the past decade or two.

Belize has a total of 18 major river catchments with another 16 sub-catchments, which drain the Maya Mountains and discharge into the Caribbean Sea . Boles (1999) identifies 16 principal watersheds which he roughly grouped into six main watershed regions based on general characteristics of topography, geology, soils, rainfall and land use.  He defines a watershed region as a cluster of watersheds that share many structural, climatic and often impact characteristics.  The watershed regions include: the Northern Watershed Region, the Northeastern, the Central, the Southeastern, the Southwestern and the Southern Watershed Region.

The total volume of freshwater available per capita in Belize in 1995 was 80.8 thousand cubic meters, the highest in Latin America (CCAD, 1998; Belize First National Communications COP/UNFCCC, 2000).  In additions, numerous freshwater and brackish water lakes or lagoons are scattered in the central and northern coastal, and inland low-lying areas.

Potable water supply for urban communities and some rural settlements, and the provision of sewerage services for Belize City and Belmopan are provided by Belize Water Services (BWS), a private water company, which bought over the assets and liabilities of the former Water and Sewerage Authority of Belize (WASA) in 2000.  The company manages water supply systems for nine urban areas and some fifty-six rudimentary systems. The average daily water supply from river sources is approximately 3.79 million gallons, from groundwater sources it is 0.59 million gallons and from springs 0.38 million gallons (Johnson, 1996).

Groundwater is a vital source for freshwater in rural Belize , where almost 95 % of the freshwater supply comes from groundwater (Rural Water Unit, Ministry of Rural Development).

Groundwater is extracted in rural areas through the use of hand pumps and rudimentary water systems. The Rural Water Unit is primarily responsible for drilling wells and installing pumps. They also work closely with the community in the development of rudimentary water systems, which are finance jointly by the Government of Belize through the Social Investment Funds (SIF), and United Nation Agencies such as UNICEF, PAHO, and UNHCR.

2.0    Stakeholders  

In Belize there are several agencies and organization that have a stake in water use and management in one way or the other. Consequently, in their endeavor to execute their duties and achieve their goals, overlaps and duplication of efforts among the agencies is common, while some important responsibilities remain unattended.  Cognizant of this the Government of Belize through the Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment, Industry and Commerce (MNREI), earlier this year saw the need to reactivate the National Pro-tem Water Commission, which was active in the early 90s, but became defunct with change in administrations.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), November 1994 Technical Cooperation Program Report entitled, “Water Resources Management Policy, Planning and Organization” recommended that the Water Commission be activated, and that Government put in place the legal framework and institutional capacity for the sustainable management of Belize ’s water resources (FAO, 1994).  The current Pro-tem Water Commission, chaired by the Chief Environmental Officer, is in the process of revising the FAO 1994 Report, proposed activities and make policy recommendations to the Belize Government on water-related issues.

Membership of the Pro-tem Water Commission for the next two years include the: Department of the Environment, Meso-American Barrier Reef System, Lands Department, Meso-American Biological Corridors, Forest Department, Meteorology Department, Ministry of Rural Development, PAHO, Belize Water Services Ltd., Public Utilities Commission, Conservation Division (Forestry), Public Health Bureau, Ministry of Agriculture, Belize Electricity Ltd., Belize Audubon Society and a Legal Council (MNREI).

The Hydrology Unit within the National Meteorological Service of Belize is responsible for collecting and analyzing data on the quantity, quality, and variability of Belize ’s water resources.  It is also responsible for the publication and dissemination of water resources information, provision of hydrological advice for engineering and other water related projects, dissemination of early warning for floods and inundations generated by extreme hydro-meteorological events, and issuing warnings related to dam regulation and dam break.  The Hydrology Unit currently manages and maintains 27 hydrological observation sites in all but two of the 18 major watersheds. The two watersheds with no stage gauge monitoring sites are the Temash and Sarstoon.  The plan for the near future is to expand the hydrological monitoring network into these remote watersheds in southern Belize .

Other agencies and institutions in water supply and management include: the Belize Water Services responsible for the provision of potable water to urban and some rural communities, and providing functional sewerage services to Belize City; the Rural Water Unit, responsible for drilling wells for rural communities and the development of Rudimentary Water Supply Systems; the Public Health Bureau and Coastal Zone Management Authority, both of whom conduct water quality monitoring; and the Department of the Environment (DOE) whose mandate cuts across the responsibilities of all other water related agencies under the Environmental Protection Act of 1992.  Although legally empowered, human and financial resources limit the efforts of the DOE.

The Ministry of Works is responsible for the construction and maintenance of navigable waterways and bridges. Engineering works, land reclamation, drainage and facilitating transportation along flooded roads are also their responsible.  Some other important players in water related issues include the Ministry of Agriculture, the Public Utilities Commission, local Bottled Water Companies, PAHO, Belize Electricity Limited, Audubon Society, and various NGOs and national focal points of regional and international agencies such as UNEP, the Global Water Partnership (GWP-CATAC), UNDP and others.

No comprehensive water-quality monitoring program exists in Belize .  A number of agencies monitor water quality for their own purposes.  Some of these agencies include the Department of the Environment, Public Health Bureau, Fisheries Department, Coastal Zone Authority, Belize Water Services, environmental NGOs and consulting agencies.

3.0    Integrated Water Resources Management and Challenges  

Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) is one approach to promote sustainable water resources use and management.  This is the paradigm promulgated by GWP and is essentially a stakeholder/community-based, holistic approach for the management of a country’s water resources.  The GWP defines IWRM as a process that promotes the coordinated development and administration of water, land and related resources, in order to maximize the social and economic benefit in an equitable way, without jeopardizing the sustainability of vital ecosystems (TAC,  Background Paper, No. 4/GWP; p.22).  As a member of the Central American Integration System (SICA) and CARICCOM, Belize participates actively in regional efforts to coordinate the management of the region’s water resources.  Some of these initiatives include the: “Vision on Water, Life and the Environment for the 21st Century”, conducted in 2000 by the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC); workshops and seminars on groundwater related issues and water legislations conducted by the Central American Technical Advisory Committee (CATAC) of the GWP; the Commission for Hydrology of the World Meteorological Organizations regional and international workshops and conferences; the recent Water Quality Standard Project for Belize conducted by PAHO, Red Cross and the Belize Public Health Bureau; and CEDERA initiatives in disaster management and flood mitigation.

4.0    A Vision for the Future  

Belize ’s water resources are vitally important for the economic development of the nation and the welfare of its people.  The resource is finite and vulnerable to degradation. As in most places, water is considered a free resource and available for the benefit of all (Belize First National Comm. to the COP/UNFCCC, 2000). People use it with little consideration of the needs of others or of its sustainability.  Water resources in shared watersheds are the property of co-basin countries, however, little consideration has been given to the proportional ownership and level of responsibility for its protection.  Groundwater abstraction is unregulated as is the case with surface water, and the use of freshwater for irrigation keeps increasing for the cultivation of banana, rice and citrus, without any restriction.

The “Vision” for sustainable water resources management in Belize will need to address these problems and miss-guided practices. It will need to consider an integrated approach to water resources management, which requires the participation of all stakeholders, communities and decision-makers. The Pro-tem Water Commission must undertake proactive actions and strategies to change the public’s attitude toward sustainable water use and conservation, and submit binding and effective policy recommendations to the Government of Belize which should help formulate legislations for regulating the use of Belize ’s freshwater, and safe-guard this vital resource for present and future generations of Belizean.


Boles, R., 1999.  The Sibun River Watershed Atlas.  Sibun Watershed Association. GOB Printers, p. 4.

CATHALAC, 2000.  Vision on Water, Life and the Environment for the 21st Century:

Regional Consultation, Central America .   Panama , March 2000.

CCAD, 1998.  Estado del Ambiente y Los Recursos Naturales en Centraoamerica 1998.

First National Communications to the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations

Framework Convention on Climate Change , Belize .  January 2000.  UNDP Project/98/G31?A/1/99.

GWP-CATAC, 2000.  Report: Regional Workshop on Water Legislation.  Antigua

Guatemala , Guatemala , Dec. 4-5, 2000

IDB, UNDP, UICN, WRI, USAID and the Swedish Government.

Johnson, K., 1996. National Report on Water Resources:  Belize , Country Report.  In

Water Resources Assessment and management Strategies in Latin America and the Caribbean . Proceedings of the WMO/IDB Conference. San Jose Costa Rica , 6-11 May, 1996.