Sunday, May 4, 2008

Progress Comes to Guanaja

In developed countries, almost all areas have in place a system for sewage disposal. In the early development of the United States, in most rural areas, homes and business started out with septic tanks. When the immigrants journeyed to the New World they tried to do things better by learning from the past. Progress was slow but it continued as the larger cities devised systems to carry their wastes to the nearest body of water. In the mid-1800s, Boston was the site of the first "interceptor" system in the country. Early pipes, some of which still exist today, were made of clay, brick and hollowed logs. Washington, D.C. became the first city to use concrete for its sanitary sewers.

As the population began to link the spread of disease with their waste disposal methods, more and more innovative ideas were developed. Homes were located near creeks with privies linked by a foot bridge extending out over the water so that the wastes were dropped into the water and carried off. Due to the rising population and growth in building, it was found that a safer and more sanitary way of disposing of the sewage that came out of homes and business was needed, plus the mere policing of waste products so people could not dump anything they wanted into their system. Thus, sewer systems were needed and, in light of past World history, systems were developed for the purpose of an efficient way of handling waste.

Incredibly, the first signs of plumbing date back as far as 8000 B.C. in Scotland where evidence has been found of indoor plumbing pipes or troughs that carried water and wastes out to a nearby creek. Approximately 4000 years later in Iraq, man was using the percolation system of drainage of waste as evidenced by what appeared to be round, vertical cesspits under the homes, 30 to 40 feet deep, lined with perforated brick.

By 3000 to 2000 B.C., the inhabitants of Mohenjo-Daro (in modern-day Pakistan) began assigning a separate room in the house to be a latrine room. Here drains were connected to a sewer in the street; ultimately the wastes went to either the Indus River or to large cesspits. About the same time on the Isle of Crete, flush toilets, with overhead reservoirs filled and flushed by servants or slaves, were used. And if you think modern-day sewer projects take time, consider that in Rome work began on a sewer system-the "Cloaca Maxima"-in 735 B.C. and was not finished until 225 years later. But also consider, that same sewer is still being put to some beneficial use today.

So, the development of sewers has taken a long time during the Earth’s history and has evolved to what we see today in the more developed countries.

The method of sewage disposal on the island for years has been either 1) using an “outhouse” or hole for human waste; 2) sending the runoff of human waste through pipes into the sea; 3) or, most recently the use of septic tanks. For years on the Cay of Bonacca all the waste had been deposited into pipes which eventually dump into the sea. Considering the small population at one time on Bonacca, this method did not cause any problems and it seemed that the ocean took care of any bacteria, garbage, etc. by simply the wave action of the water dispensing the material into a large spread out area.

Recently, through some funding (and I am not privy to where, how or who the funding came from) the town of Bonacca has started digging up the streets to install pipes to carry waste products away from the homes and/or businesses. I have not heard yet if there is going to be some place where all this waste is properly treated before being disposed of and I’m afraid to ask. We assume that there will be one or several collecting/treatment stations for the waste but one never gets a clear answer to any inquiry, especially from the government here.

Either way, last year the push was on to dig up every street in town and install sewer lines. Of course, this is a long, tedious task because of the lack of equipment here. The Cay was originally one small Cay with small bridges crossing over various inlets of ocean water. Guanaja has always been known as the Venice of the Caribbean because of these small canals running through the town. The Cay expanded in size slowly over the years as people started dumping broken pieces of concrete, dead coral, trash, lumber (you name it) and filling in shallow areas of the sea surrounding the original Cay.

While the name of the island has changed several times over the years, from Caguamara in the 1600’s with various different names occurring during that time - Isla Pinos (when Columbus came) to Guanaca in 1601, Guanaia in 1657, Guanaja in 1749, Bonaccao in 1771, Bonacca in 1779 and finally back to Guanaja where it has remained. The name of Bonacca was given to the small Cay off the island where people set up a community and established their seat of government there.

Since the Cay is intersected with many small streets and some have limited access, digging up the streets can present many problems both for those trying to get from Point A to Point B to business being adversely affected by inaccessibility to them. I recently took some photos of the work at hand and the effects it has had on the general population.

Up until a few months ago, no signs were posted warning people to be careful around these areas of construction and navigating was perilous. I must assume that someone fell or an accident occurred as they finally painted two signs to post at either end of their work areas.

Alternate paths had to be created to by-pass this work and, in a developed country these paths would be made safe and accessible for all. Here, with limited space, limited money and a never before practice of looking out for your fellow man, the paths reflect that attitude.

One place of construction presently blocks off a highly popular vegetable market and a “back way” was devised to use it. However, no signs will tell you that there is an alternate path to this business and, therefore, the owner of the market has suffered a drop in business. There was one "diversion" sign, but it merely sent you down a street straight to the Ocean!

Men work in these holes, digging out dirt and then pumping out the sea water they come to through a series of pipes and the water is then pumped back into the sea via another canal.
The ground that has been dug up and received the sewer line is covered over with dirt and eventually a concrete sidewalk is put in place. On one hand this is good as in most Honduran cities, sidewalks are old and riddled with holes and assorted obstacles which make walking very hazardous. So, at least, for the most part, we will have a safer sidewalk to traverse. That is, until the land shifts, the concrete is worn down by rain and/or the lack of properly mixing the cement, sand and water simply causes it to wear away with everyday use and then we will be back to dangerous holes, cracks, etc. Until then, we will have a nice walkway.

I don’t know how much longer this project is going to take, but it will, most likely, go into next year as they have to hook up each house/building/business to this sewer line. And, since 99% of the work is done by hand with the only machinery to date being a jackhammer, it accounts for the lengthy process.

So, for now, it is something new to observe. In the meantime we are waiting for the loud jack hammer noise to abate and some peace to return to the Cay.


  1. Umm...not to be too, you know, "picky," but shouldn't they build a sewage treatment plant *before* building the sewers and hooking up all the houses and businesses to it? I mean, in our world (meaning: Non-Honduran) that would be the logical way to do it. Without some sort of treatment plant...somewhere, all of that sewage will just be routed to the sea. Which, I suppose is just what happens now. Maybe the place will smell incrementally better. All in all, it looks like a job with the typical amount of planning and effort (i.e. none) that goes into every municipal project there. Good luck on it getting done in this century.

    Also, it looks like you captured the elusive Roger Wood in one of your shots. And what about that boy with his thumb up his nose? Classic!

    Nice story, great photos(!), bad memories.

  2. Hi Sharon,

    You need to delete that first comment. It is another one of those "malicious links." Do you receive email notice of the comments? You can change your settings to do that. -- Just trying to help.

    Interesting article and I hope that you do find out that they will be using a treatment plant. It's a shame to be so short-sighted, if not.

  3. In my town I would have heard about something like this through a newsletter, press, locals gossiping, etc. Sounds like you were'nt at all aware of this project... true?

    If so... too much!


  4. As always, it all boils down to money!! Someone is making money off of this. Don't be naive to think they are doing this for environmental reasons. Do some digging of your own and find out who is getting their pipes greased the most!