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Editorial: No serious water policy from Pickersgill

Published:Wednesday | August 19, 2015 | 8:00 AM

Ask Robert Pickersgill about the management of Jamaica's water resources and he'll likely default to the scramble - although he won't define it that way - by the National Water Commission (NWC) to rehabilitate wells in the Kingston Metropolitan Area, where hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans live, as part of the response to the island's ongoing drought.

He will also point to piped-water schemes in several rural communities as well as the nearly completed project to deliver up to two million additional gallons of water daily from the Rio Cobre in St Catherine to a thirsty Kingston and St Andrew. There is, too, that project managed by the Israeli company Miya to, over the next five years, reduce by more than 60 per cent, the 70 million gallons of water the NWC produces and supplies daily in the capital, for which it earns nothing.

These are all good things, which we applaud. They are, however, largely operational undertakings by a firm - albeit one owned by the State, managing a critical national resource and having to hew the Government's agenda. They do little to vindicate Mr Pickersgill, the minister with responsibility for land, water and the environment, from his failure to deliver an up-to-date, overarching policy for water management and use in Jamaica.

 

MUCH TALK, LITTLE ACTION

 

Insofar as this newspaper is aware, the last formal water policy for Jamaica is nearly two decades old, promulgated in 1999. Climate change and its affects were, at the time, already firmly on the international agenda, as well as the fact of water as a growing global strategic and security issue. But the prolonged annual drought from which Jamaica now suffers was not yet deeply set, so national attention to these issues was not as sustained as it is now, and has been for the past decade. It is, in the circumstance, perhaps understandable that the policy of 1999 was not as robust as it might have been.

But in the three and a half years since Mr Pickersgill's party was returned to office after a four-year hiatus, the minister has done little to translate talk into clear policy and legislative action. And he mustn't conflate the two.

Take the matter of the recharging of wells being expensively undertaken by the NWC to compensate for the reduced flows into the capital's surface storage. The wells were decommissioned, in part because they are polluted with nitrates from mostly private septic systems, which is the result of the failure of those who oversee the water resources to articulate, fight for and enforce a system for their protection.

Nor have we heard from Mr Pickersgill ideas, incentives and/or penalties to promote the domestic harvesting of water, or to what use expensively treated water may be put. For example, potable water is sold by a government agency for crop irrigation. Perhaps this can be substituted by treated water from sewer systems and run-offs from storm drains. The feasibility of delivering water from the island's surplus north to the deficit south is worthy of exploration.

We appreciate that the practicability of such proposals hinge on costs, the determination of which must start with the kind of engagement at which Mr Pickersgill has failed, including discussion of a strategy to make the limping, taxpayer-subsidised NWC a viable business, capable of financing its projects. Divestment must be on the agenda.