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Editorial: Wanted: a minister for water

Published:Sunday | July 5, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Jamaica is into its annual convulsion over drought and the restrictions on water supplies by the near-monopoly supplier of the commodity, the government-owned National Water Commission (NWC). The country will, of course, muddle through this latest crisis, until, it is hoped, the rains return and the problem is eased. Then we will do it all again next year.

The problem, however, is that muddling through is becoming an increasingly difficult option. The droughts are longer and the demand for water is on the rise. At least, there is not sufficient volumes of the commodity where it is needed most - the consequence of global warming and demographics. Perhaps, more critically, there is an absence of water policy leadership in the Jamaican Government.

The shame of it all is that three years ago, when the People's National Party returned to office after its short hiatus in Opposition, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller appeared to have a clear grasp of the issues that Jamaica needed to confront as part of a response to a deepening global crisis. She established a grandly named Ministry of Land, Water, Environment and Climate Change. Mrs Simpson Miller's failure is who she assigned the portfolio - Robert Pickersgill, the long-serving party stalwart who, it seems, is too weighed down by the title to get anything of significance done. He has failed to make water-resource management a central issue of Government, or to place it in popular consciousness.

 

No serious debate

 

He has, for instance, failed to engage a serious debate about the future of the NWC - including its ownership - which produces around 70 billion gallons of potable water annually, of which it receives no revenue for about 65 per cent because it is lost in leaky, old pipes the company can ill-afford to replace; is stolen by consumers; or is given free to consumers as part of the Government's welfare programme.

The upshot is that the NWC loses money on its operations, leading to a long-term accumulation of deficits. Indeed, it would be bankrupt but for the recent revaluation of its plant and equipment.

At the same time, while the Government's fiscal problems constrain its capacity to borrow directly or build up contingent liabilities, the NWC's social-welfare pricing of its goods means that it cannot sufficiently invest in the infrastructure to transport the commodity from the island's water-plentiful north to the heavily populated south.

Moreover, inadequate development planning and/or enforcement mean that many groundwater systems in and around urban areas are contaminated and will require significant rehabilitation for potability.

To be fair to Mr Pickersgill, he occasionally mentions these things, but, at best, has shuffled his way through strategies to deal with them. He has failed to prod his Government to place legislative muscle behind the water-harvesting ideas generally floated about, which he sometimes echoes.

A decade ago, when Jamaica produced 920 million cubic metres of water annually, an outline government policy suggested an existing shortfall of 126 million cubic metres. It was projected that another 790 million would be required by 2015 - which is upon us. We have no sense that Mr Pickersgill is aware that this document exists, or that he caused it to be upgraded, or has done anything about it.

In these times, Robert Pickersgill is not the right man for the portfolio he presides over.