Salaam: New EMA policy on water pollution is welcomed news, now for education and enforcement

It was welcoming news when I heard of the Environmental Management Authority’s serious stance on water pollution and its amended policy that would effectively deal with companies and organisations that flagrantly and without care pollute our waterways, rivers and seas.

Why did this take so long in coming? It is not like we have not observed over the years the brazen act by companies who caused contaminants from their activities to pollute our waterways, rivers and swamps.

The EMA, which sometimes appears to lack cogency and assertiveness, has lifted the veil of timidity and is targeting polluters in terms of point source. Once the policy is implemented, companies will be required to get a permit from the EMA or pay up to TT$100,000 in fees for violation of the policy.

Photo: Polluted water flows into a river.

How will the EMA decide on the amount to be paid by big business, the ‘small man’ or even individuals is the fine print that may require direction from the relevant international environmental watchdogs. But certainly, this is welcomed news for all proponents of the environment.

For the uninformed, point source is the single location from which contaminants are introduced into the air, water or soil. Let’s look at the neighborhood mechanic, for instance, whose garage accumulates waste from cars’ engine oil.

That contaminated waste oil should, under law, be sent to a treatment company for recycling. But because of bad habit or a lack of environmental awareness, the oil is dumped into the ground and allowed to enter our underground water supply, where it can further spread into aquifers, rivers and eventually the sea.

The EMA has to bring awareness to sole traders like the neighbourhood mechanic, ‘mom-and-pop shops’ and small businesses; because long-standing habits are hard to shake off. But once they have been educated and understand the consequence of their actions, they would be fined if their behaviour does not change.

These laws and fines must be comprehensive and enforced to prevent abuse.

“Those who produce pollution should bear the costs of managing it to prevent damage to human health or the environment.”

This is the ‘polluter pays’ principle [incorporated at the 1992 Rio Summit], which is commonly accepted practice.

Water pollution is no frivolous issue and must be given prominence, in the same way we address climate change and air pollution. Water degradation is the leading cause of waterborne disease that affects human health.

Photo: A polluted neighbourhood in India.

We all witnessed the severe flooding last year and ought to be very concerned that, as an island susceptible to torrential rainfall, we can easily fall victim to communicable water-borne diseases such as typhoid fever, cholera and vector-borne diseases such as malaria dengue hemorrhagic fever.

And while big oil spills may grab our attention, we must not forget that the agricultural sector also contributes to water degradation and pollution; every time it rains, fertilisers, pesticides and harmful pathogens are washed into our waterways. The EMA must therefore address farmers whose activities are major contributors to contamination in our estuaries and groundwater.

Often times, people in authority put business and growth before the protection of our natural environment. But the truth is, if we want an economy that provides for everyone’s needs in the long term, we need to reverse the damage to the environment around us.

Surely the EMA, which overnight has found its vertebrae, must continue its drive to restructure its mandate, amend policies and educate the population on all issues relating to our environment—biotic and abiotic—in order to protect our natural world.

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