Slipping up on water policy
Quite unsurprisingly, last year's water restrictions have been followed by similar announcements this year. Many Jamaicans may be able to list the number of times in the past that we have had two successive years of record drought and of water restrictions within the Kingston Metropolitan Area.
Being the largest geographic area in the country with the most premises connected to the water grid managed by the National Water Commission (NWC), the Kingston Metropolitan Area is an important constituency. When Kingston becomes dry and thirsty, Jamaica is dry and thirsty.
Yet the adverse drought conditions affecting Kingston become pronounced months after we have felt them in St Elizabeth and other parts of rural Jamaica. Press conferences, restrictions and announcements aside, we have been feeling the impact of droughts for the better part of the last four years. The scorching our farmlands have taken - both from sunlight and brush fires - suppresses the ability of farmers to reach the historic yields that gave St Elizabeth the moniker, 'Breadbasket Parish'.
Other parishes famous for their arable lands and bounty, such as St Ann, are also suffering from the inability to be restored to their original lustre as one year of drought or reduced rainfall is followed by another.
In the recent announcements, it was stated that "without the restrictions, the present supplies could last for as little as 15 days" (if no rain in good quantity was to fall in the catchment areas). There is nothing in the conversation as to how long the supplies would last, even with the restrictions, if nothing else were to change.
So much like we did in the first global oil crisis in the 1970s, we are now discussing solutions for better water-resource management in the midst of the crisis. It is hoped that whereas we basically abandoned the national campaign for energy conservation as soon as the global oil crisis receded, we will not make the same mistake with respect to charting new solutions to harvest, store, disinfect and distribute water.
A few questions naturally arise. Are the traditional catchment areas still the best sources of rainfall? Or are we remaining dependent on them based on patterns of history and proximity to the Kingston Metropolitan area? Is there any empirical evidence available through the Water Resources Authority that is being used to determine the best steps forward? Are we yet at the point where we will, in addition to highway construction, seek the assistance of the engineers behind the Three Gorges Dam to attain any similar solution in Jamaica?
As member of parliament for North Eastern St Elizabeth, which is bathed by several year-round sources of water - including the Black River - one of the most important sources of fresh water in Jamaica - these are issues with which I wrestle almost daily.
For while we have the Grossman, Shedbug, Braes and Black rivers, as well as a slew of underground wells and other sources - many of our residences are still without piped water. Most of our farmlands are still without modern irrigation systems and, therefore, like many of our schools do, we still depend on rainwater to get by.
To its credit, the St Elizabeth Parish Council has made it clear that all building approvals will be provisional until there is a clear indication that on-site rainwater-harvesting facilities will be part of the building design. This is commendable and will assist significantly. But what of the farms in areas to the south of the parish which become unprofitable and unproductive for as many of six months of the year?
The respite which, as MPs, we try to provide with subsidised trucking of water is but a drop in the bucket - literally. It is expensive, unsustainable and leads to social strife as residents always complain that Person X receives water because of voting or other proximal reasons to the interests of the MPs. This recently led to one constituent declaring that he prefers "rainfall politics" (which wets everybody equally) than "water-trucking politics" which sees only a select few benefiting.
It is perhaps this very conundrum that led visionary Sydney Ralph Pagon, former minister of government and MP for North Eastern St Elizabeth, to have conceptualised and commenced the implementation of a set of long-term solutions. These included the establishment of a mini dam along the course of the Black River in an area widely referred to as the Black River Morass. Pumps (all now vandalised) were also installed there, which would have assisted in lifting the water to a channel (now overgrown) that would take water to Hounslow in South Western St Elizabeth and therefrom to the important farmlands across southern St Elizabeth.
A significant investment was commenced. The channel was dug and the construction of a dyke road had commenced. Local historians say the entire project was abandoned in the 1980s after the change of administration for various reasons, including a claim that the road was being used as an airstrip for the illegal conveyance of drugs and guns.
That experience aside, there is now growing consensus that a better use has to be made of the millions of gallons of fresh water that pours into the Caribbean Sea each hour from the Black River and her tributaries while the plains through which the river meanders remain dry and parched.
If such a project were resuscitated, the immediate benefits would include scholarships in the pre-construction phase for graduate students in the requisite areas of freshwater ecology, coastal management and engineering to do a pre-feasibility study.
In the construction phase, the hundreds of jobs that will result would soothe perhaps an even greater thirst in the parish - that being the thirst for employment by an agile, industrious youth population that is losing hope every day more.
Post-construction would see year-round production on open fields of the various crops for which St Elizabeth has become famous and the ability to expand the agro park concept to other parts of the parish beyond the current New Forest Duff House Park. The increase yields and the direct positive impact on import substitution and export will redound to growth in the agricultural sector and its contribution to GDP growth would be easily measured as a positive outcome.
The proper management of the Black River resources would also improve the potential for an inland freshwater agro park that could be used to produce koi or tilapia for export, as well as for local consumption, giving new life to inland fisheries as a prospect for local or foreign direct investment.
For various reasons, these proposals may never be considered. They may be stymied by the fear of the response from my colleagues in the environmental fields. They may be stymied because our version of politics may seek to punish a first-term backbencher for advancing a thought publicly as well as internally. They may be stymied because, in the end, they are deemed too expensive or otherwise unworkable.
Yet, it is hoped that they cause, if nothing else, a moment of introspection. What if climate change is real? What if we will have a drier summer this year than we did last year and next year when compared to this year? If these things happen and we do not change the way we relate to climate, the environment and water management, how expensive will the solutions be in 10 years' time?
- Raymond Pryce is MP for North Eastern St Elizabeth. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.