Wed | Aug 16, 2017

Destroying wood and water

Published:Friday | May 22, 2015 | 5:00 AM

The need we Jamaicans have for water will never end. We drink, we cook, we bathe, and we wash. We take in more than half a gallon of water each day, and it passes out as urine, sweat, and in our breath. Those who plan Jamaica's future must multiply this demand by our projected population in the years to come, and must ensure we have enough clean water to survive.

If our need for water is never-ending, ever-increasing, our sources of water must be sustainable in the long term.

Where does Jamaica's drinking water come from? Why, the tap, of course! Hopefully, our national planners can think beyond that. Water to put in the tap is harvested from rivers and underground aquifers fed by rainfall trapped by forests. And so the wood and the water go together. No wood, no water. It is as simple as that.

There are a few exceptions, but over the years, Jamaica's political class has proved that it is scientifically illiterate. [I think I am being kind to prefer that designation, rather than calling them malicious environmental assassins].

Jamaica has an unenviable environmental record: at one time the most overfished waters in the Caribbean (and probably the world); at one time the highest rate of deforestation in the world. The authorities believed that if you cut down a natural forest and plant an orchard of mango trees or orange trees, you can say that there is no net loss of forest cover. Nonsense! Orchards of food trees cannot perform the same ecosystem services as natural forests.

 

rivers drying up

 

During the 20th Century, more than 100 Jamaican rivers dried up. Nostalgia must be setting in. Can we ever regain our record-breaking attainments of the past, since so little forest is left? Is there anything we can do to make another 100 rivers dry up? The Government looks as if it is going to give it a good try.

The Cockpit Country is the source of about 40 per cent of Jamaica's water resources. Rainwater trapped there replenishes the aquifers of seven major rivers, and many smaller ones: the Black River, Alligator Pond River and Hector's River on the south coast, and the Great River, Martha Brae, Rio Bueno and Montego River on the north.

These rivers supply water to the residents of St Elizabeth, Hanover, Trelawny and St James. There is a lot of water mixing underground in Jamaica's limestone aquifers. Cockpit Country water also supplies parts of Clarendon, Manchester, Westmoreland and St Ann.

The 5,000 steep-sided sinkholes and ridges in the Cockpit Country are a treasure chest of other valuables. More than 100 species of plants are found there and nowhere else in the world, some restricted to a single hillock. More than 500 species of ferns are there, more than in any other rainforest in the tropics.

The Cockpit Country is a large feeding and nesting area for some 79 species of birds, 22 species of reptiles, 16 species of amphibians, and the largest butterfly in the world - the extremely rare and elusive Giant Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio homerus), with a wingspan of six inches. There are areas yet undisturbed, and more species are being discovered.

 

unsustainable activity

 

There is also bauxite underground in the Cockpit Country. Jamaican administrations - before now - have been wise to prohibit mining in the Cockpit Country, because the short-term gains are far outweighed by the medium- and long-term losses which will result.

Mining is not a sustainable activity. Bauxite is a finite resource, and one day, the last ton of bauxite ore will have been trucked away, and the mining companies will pack up and go elsewhere. What will we have left? The forests and endemic plants will be gone, replaced by grass if we are lucky (many bauxite companies have failed to 'restore' mined-out lands). The wildlife will have no habitat, and water will be scarce since flow in the above-named rivers will be much reduced.

Solemn assurances have been given by successive governments that "no mining will take place in the Cockpit Country", but it is an old political trick: Make the promise, but then get your technocrats to define the Cockpit Country as that area which has no bauxite.

The technocrats have come up with several definitions of the Cockpit Country, but all include the area with the greatest bauxite reserves. The Government does not intend to keep its word (does it ever?), and so we can now expect more sophisticated political tricks, spin, and shenanigans.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and environmentalist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.