Why we need a Ministry of Environment
Andrew Holness has hit the ground running as our new Prime Minister after orchestrating one of the best organized and effective campaigns that the country has seen. One of his first orders of business was to announce a cabinet smaller than that of the previous administration.
But while perusing the list of new government ministers and their ministries I realized the noticeable absence of a Ministry of Environment. It was later announced that the environment portfolio will be subsumed, along with several others, under the Office of the Prime Minister.
While this may not be a big deal to most of the populace, to environmentalists and others who understand the importance of managing our environment, it is cause for concern. I see this as a grave oversight on the part of Mr Holness, but not as grounds to vilify him, as even though the previous administration had a Ministry of Water, Land, Environment & Climate Change, the Ministry and its Minister, Robert Pickersgill, were embarrassingly ineffective.
I do not believe that either Mr Pickersgill or Mr Holness gets it. I do not think that the majority of Jamaicans get it either. There is a tendency for us to pay scant regard to our environment, but we do so at our own peril. The degradation of our environment will result in negative long term effects that will adversely affect the island and its people. Unfortunately, the laws that protect Jamaicans and our wildlife from the abuse and decay of our environment are often not enforced, and many require amendment.
Climate change, for example, is real, and rising ocean levels have been well documented. This phenomenon is of supreme interest to us. Jamaica is an island, and is therefore surrounded by a coastline. Tourism is our main foreign exchange earner. Our beaches are important for tourism. Rising sea levels will compromise our beaches and beach front properties, including hotels, with ocean waves expected to be literally knocking on the doors of persons living or visiting coastal areas at some time in the future. Unfortunately, there is little in place governing adaptation and mitigation regarding the effects of rising sea levels which are guaranteed to affect us. So setbacks, or increasing the distance from coastlines where construction can take place, have not been addressed, and this places persons and buildings at risk.
We also need landfills. We have none. What we have are several dumps that pose significant risks to those residing in close proximity to them. As a matter of fact, under the law in Jamaica, dumps or landfills require environmental permits in order to operate. None of our dumps have permits, but they are allowed to operate anyway. Landfills are supposed to be lined with impervious materials to prevent toxic substances from leaching into and contaminating the groundwater, or the sea which may be nearby. Our dumps do not have this. Also, the garbage should be compacted and covered periodically by layers of soil, to reduce contact with air and the risk of fires. This is not done. Different types of materials should also be separated. This is also not done. When substances such as plastic, rubber and batteries burn, they release very toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, creating significant health issues.
A policy on plastic is sorely needed. Plastic usually takes 500 to 1,000 years to disintegrate, and in the meantime, it wreaks havoc on the environment. When it arrives at our dumps and burns, the material releases harmful substances into the air. It also blocks drains and contributes to the blocking of our gullies, contributing to mosquito breeding and flooding, and when it reaches the sea, as it often does, it chokes, poisons and traps marine creatures. Our populace needs to be educated regarding the principle of the three R’s (reduce, reuse and recycle) regarding plastic and other materials.
Our watershed areas are not being properly protected. Laws exist, but are not properly enforced, as permits are given to build and develop in these areas, with negative effects on our environment. Building in these areas results in deforestation, leading to soil erosion and reducing the quantity of water that can be harvested, and sewage seeps into the groundwater and contaminates it.
Laws governing air and water pollution require stricter enforcement. At least one distillery continues to discharge dunder into rivers, killing fish and other aquatic creatures, and caustic soda and other chemicals from bauxite factories are affecting the health and structures of homes of persons living nearby.
Our coral reefs have been neglected and are in a state of ruin. Apart from being of interest to tourists who engage in underwater activities, they buffer shorelines against waves during storms and hurricanes, helping to prevent loss of life, property damage, and erosion. But we do not protect them. Parrotfish are very important for the maintenance of our reefs. They excrete sand, which helps to produce beaches, and a large adult parrotfish can excrete over 1 ton of sand per year. They also eat algae and sponges which can compromise coral reefs. However, we have failed to protect our reefs from overfishing of these and other fish, from pollution runoff from land with fertilizers, pesticides, silts and inadequately treated sewage, and from damage from spearfishing, fishing pots and drag netting.
So not only do we need a ministry dedicated to our environment, we require it to be well-organized and managed by persons who have a genuine interest in the subject matter, and are motivated by passion and love for the country and its people. I sincerely hope that the Prime Minister will revisit his decision regarding this ministry.