Raymond Pryce | Five in four washed out
The prime minister, at his quarterly press conference held last week, made reference to weather events that affected projected growth - specifically in the agricultural sector. This was not the first time our growth targets have been missed because of bad weather; nor will it be the last.
In fact, it is more likely that we may have five major weather events in four years than a five per cent growth in GDP over the same period!
If nothing else, the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season should have taught even the greatest sceptic that climate change is real. There has been an increase in the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones. There has also been a noticeable increase in the financial cost and duration of the recovery after each has passed.
Luckily, Jamaica was spared from direct hits by hurricanes last year. However, we have had bouts of bad weather that have caused significant damage to property and to productivity. The rains that affected Clarendon in May 2017 and the flooding in Montego Bay towards the end of the year are examples. Both illustrate the double-edged sword that Jamaica faces.
On the one hand, the volume of rainfall within a relatively short period physically overwhelmed the old and ailing infrastructure. While on the other hand, it reveals the solid waste-management dilemma faced in major towns throughout the island. In most cases, our gullies and drains were initially built many generations ago. Population distribution was different. Areas that were primarily bush or scrub forests have been replaced by hillside dwellings of unplanned, rapidly growing communities.
This scenario presents a new set of hazards. It magnifies the threat faced by natural disasters. The cost to the country for recovery is staggering. More persons are affected, and the value of property within the hazard zone is significant. The duration of the recovery period is extensive.
Sometimes, diseases such as leptospirosis and gastro-enteritis follow and add to the impact. Productivity goes down, and costs to the public-health sector skyrocket. There are disruptions in the education sector, temporary closure of businesses, and the cost to clean, repair, and restore eventually reflect in reduced growth in the economy.
The September 9, 2016, experience of the Coffee Industry Board is a case worth studying. Readers may recall the images of cars afloat in the parking lot as water from a nearby gully swirled through the facility. Assessments confirmed that some US$3 million worth of coffee beans had to be destroyed as a result.
A Gleaner February 27, 2017, article outlined what is becoming a major problem for companies under these conditions. It sets out how insurance claims made for losses were declined "on the grounds that the claims were inconsistent with the value and terms of the insurance coverage". Imagine similar losses to government entities, many of which have no insurance coverage at all. Add to that contingency spending that continues long after the mud is washed away.
National Hazard Mitigation Strategy
There is urgent need for a national hazard mitigation and response strategy. The January 1, 2018, Gleaner article 'Palisadoes gridlock! - Unruly motorists reign on airport road, passengers miss flights', brings this issue into sharp focus. That headline reflected similar problems faced by managers of large cities in the United States, for example, when mass evacuation notices are ahead of major storms landing in an area.
Just over one week later, on January 9, Jamaica was initially placed under a tsunami watch when a magnitude 7.6 earthquake struck in the Caribbean Sea between the coast of Honduras and the Cayman Islands (Gleaner, January 9, 2018). Local planners and emergency managers should 'tek sleep mark death'.
What would the situation have been on the said Palisadoes, or other roadways, if the tsunami threat had been more imminent - or if ever we were to see residents of Portmore or other coastal areas taking an evacuation notice seriously? Are our mayors and municipal corporations central to the development of a hazard mitigation plan for their respective areas? Do such plans exist?
The absence of a proper strategy will certainly compound the impact of a major storm on our coastal towns. Recall that the lungs of our economy - tourism, logistics, and shipping, bauxite and mining, and agriculture - are also in coastal areas. We should immediately begin to do simulation exercises and computer modelling on the effects across the economy and society if a Gustav, Harvey, or Irma had struck.
We have had the experiences of Gilbert and Ivan. We have also seen the recent impacts of major storms on the Turks and Caicos, Dominica, and other Caribbean islands. Our officials should already be well advanced in simulation and recovery planning.
The Coffee Industry Board experience should have caused an immediate review of the nature of insurance coverage available to government entities that house important national assets such as the National Gallery and Institute of Jamaica. The Palisadoes gridlock should have caused the commencement of legislative and other steps for the establishment of dedicated evacuation routes, protocols, and collection points for major coastal towns.
The flooding in Montego Bay last year should have immediately caused the review of emergency strategies within resorts should tourists (mostly foreign national) need to be evacuated and relocated. The recent flood rains in Portland, which again caused some towns to be marooned, should have already caused the Cabinet to officially contemplate the relocation of communities in the high ridges of the Blue and John Crow Mountains and similar areas.
The proliferation of information and communication technologies have changed the world for ever. One area that has been transformed is emergency forecasting. This allows for mitigation and even restorative steps to be taken in advance of a tragedy.
Jamaica must draw on the learning from other countries and apply them to the development of plans and strategies to reduce the impacts of hazard when they strike. These must include activities as simple as reafforestation of hillsides and as comprehensive as building new gullies and drains. Our response should include specific action areas and the resources to support them allocated swiftly. Support to achieve such a measure is available globally. Resources are also available locally.
In its January 25, 2018, publication, The Gleaner informed us that the NIR now stands at US$3.2 billion. The nation's debt stock continues to decline and should stand at 105 per cent of GDP at the end of the current fiscal year. These achievements could be easily reversed in the wake of a hurricane or less.
It is time we repurpose the NIR, using a portion to finance mitigation and adaptation measures that will reduce our vulnerabilities to natural disasters in measurable ways. Interestingly, in other economies, these activities spur much economic growth. The same could be achieved here.
- Raymond Pryce is a media presenter, social commentator, and former parliamentarian. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.