The Kingston Harbour sewage plant
Christopher Serju, Guest Columnist
The excited voice of Emma Lewis directed my gaze to the left side of the boat where a spotted eagle ray (member of the stingray family) silently glided past, just as our boat was starting out of port at the Palisadoes Marine Laboratory last Thursday.
A few minutes later, our excitement and pleasure at being the only ones on the boat, apart from ecologist Dr Llewellyn Meggs, to have caught this sighting was overshadowed by a steady stream of debris holding a conga-line formation along the surface of the sea, in pulsating rhythm to a prevailing current.
That portrait of nature in her beautiful glory, contrasted with filth and garbage, would set the tone for our trip organised by the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), with the stated purpose of providing context for journalists reporting on this year's launch of International Coastal Cleanup Day and its Clean Coasts project. I now wonder if the organisers knew or anticipated how the fact-finding reality would have unfolded.
As usual, the pelicans, as if auditioning for a coveted movie role, were out in their numbers, some demonstrating their diving and fishing skills, while others stood guard atop buoys. Majestic in flight, they are a beauty to watch, especially when going in for the kill, proudly emerging from the water with their prized catch.
Watching fishermen throwing fine lines, women pointing out something of interest in the water along the downtown Kingston waterfront, youngsters swimming in the vicinity of the Bank of Jamaica, I began to relax and enjoy a renewed appreciation of our national treasure in the world's seventh largest natural harbour, when it happened without warning. 'As if to knock me down', in the words of singer Gilbert O'Sullivan, 'reality came around' in the form of a strong, foul stench that took our collective breaths away. Literally.
Dumbstruck, everyone on the boat suddenly went silent and looked around in consternation, trying to figure out what the hell was happening.
Our trance-like state was interrupted by the voice of a member of the JET team explaining that the aggressive assault on our nostrils, brain, consciousness and innocence was in all likelihood caused by the ongoing flow of untreated sewage and industrial chemicals into the harbour. It didn't help my state of mind that he went to categorise these pollutants as 'silent' but major contributors to the continued degradation of the environment in general and Jamaica's marine space in particular.
Then as we went past the Rae Town Fishing Village and observed the volume of garbage generated on land but which had been channelled into the sea by way of the Rae Town gully, our environmental awareness took on a personal flavour. As we watched divers in the water and a fisherman hauling in a net and recalled the boys swimming, someone had the temerity to ask Dr Meggs the trick question we had all been contemplating: Would you swim in this water or eat fish that you knew was caught here?
The answer was a resounding no, but the scientist went on to explain that Kingston Harbour was very much alive, even though not in the best of health. He remains optimistic that if the right mitigation and remedial measures are implemented, this marine space can be saved.
I believe so, too, but am yet to be convinced that our parliamentarians can dredge up enough political will among them to drive the necessary enforcement consistent with breaches of our environmental laws to restore Kingston Harbour to the pride of place it once enjoyed among Jamaicans.
CROSS THE HARBOUR RACE
Was it so long ago that participation in the Cross the Harbour Race was a must for any swimmer worth his or her salt, inspiring as it did special athlete Sarah Newland-Martin to a world record for persons with disabilities in 1965, the year she was adjudged Sportswoman of the Year? This national sporting event has since been discontinued but old-timers still recall the exploits of swimming legend Barry Roper, born in the seaside town of Port Maria, St Mary, and who won the more-than-one-mile event.
Heading back to port, my reflections were interrupted by the frightening realisation of the sea spray hitting my face, something I had always enjoyed. Now I was paralysed by the thought of all those 'silent' pollutants invading my body. Finding some comfort in the idea that a cleansing with the proper agents would resolve the issue, I was starting to relax when the opening lines from my favourite song by American group The Jarmels began to play over in my head:
A little bit of soap
Will wash away your
lipstick on my face
But a little bit of soap
Will never, never, never
The pain in my heart and
Sure, I scrubbed my skin extra hard when I got home, humming these lyrics as I pondered how much 'soap' and political will it would take to get Kingston Harbour back on track. I have no doubt it can be done, should be done, but will the restoration of Kingston or Kingston Harbour get under way in earnest during my lifetime?
With more votes likely to be lost from any serious attempt to clean up the harbour, given the potential for serious short-term socio-economic disruption from any sustained action, none of the parties vying for power in Jamaica is likely to leverage its political advantage into correcting an environmental wrong. Still, the idiot in me wants to believe that for the sake of those boys enjoying an afternoon swim and the youngster enjoying the beauty of the harbour in the company of his mother, there is a ray of hope, albeit remote, that some day, someone will have enough political clout to get the process started.
Dare I hope?