Tue | Nov 20, 2018

Editorial | Jamaica thirsts for water reform

Published:Saturday | August 18, 2018 | 12:00 AM

The Office of the Prime Minister has morphed into a retirement home to which old warriors and political rivals are sent to die, but Karl Samuda, with what might be his last gasp, has confirmed that he is alive and kicking - even if barely so. But Mr Samuda has hardly inspired confidence in a change of fortunes in Jamaica's water policy.

The minister without portfolio, who ironically oversees the water and housing portfolios, on Wednesday engaged in fitful regurgitation and hand-wringing about Jamaica's cyclical lament of an unpredictable water supply, infrastructural deficits, and the need for radical policy revision. But that babble of blah will only incense Jamaicans whose taps have been dry for days, or in some cases, decades - largely because of state inaction.

What Mr Samuda should have done at the launch of the Caribbean Water and Wastewater Association's Annual Conference is not so much to restate the problems but come armed with a time-bound strategy for solving same.

There are some simple steps that need to be taken to spark a paradigm shift in both residential and commercial water consumption and storage which central government and municipal corporations have largely talked a good talk but have failed to enact the legislative and enforcement framework to mandate behaviour change.

 

SHAPING PUBLIC BEHAVIOUR

 

Politicians, whether at the national or local level, must be seized by the gravity of Jamaica's water crisis and use their considerable muscle to shape public discourse and behaviour. For example, not only should new construction require a water-harvesting component in the architectural and engineering plans in order to gain municipal approval, but water storage should also be incentivised. Grey water should also be used more widely.

The National Housing Trust could be deployed on a wider scale as a loan vehicle, similar to its programme inducing take-up of solar water heaters, not only for the acquisition of the ubiquitous plastic tanks but for the construction of underground water storage.

A few years ago when Jamaica was in the grips of a scorching drought, debate was resurrected on long-abandoned or contaminated wells and aquifers that hold unplumbed depths of water that would significantly alleviate the supply challenges that cause societal frustration and threaten public health.

 

SILENT ON GAME-CHANGING REFORM

 

But since then, Mark Barnett, president of the National Water Commission (NWC), while worthy of commendation for the installation of new, efficient water meters and MIYA infrastructure projects aimed at eliminating leaks, has been largely silent on some of the revolutionary measures required to change the game. Among the initiatives that must be considered is one which we have proposed for some time - the divestment of the NWC - as well as differentiated rates for water supply in geographical zones, for example hilly communities, that are operationally difficult and thus uneconomic when contrasted with straightforward paradigms on the plains.

Perhaps Mr Samuda might take advice from cubs in the Labour Party, such as Stephen Edwards, president of Generation 2000, the party's young professionals' group. He has proposed tax incentives and discounts on building permit fees to promote the use of water-efficient plumbing and appliances.

"Developing a culture that is environmentally responsible is now a matter of urgency. Therefore, using public policy as a tool to encourage the efficient use of water is simply the right thing to do for the environment and for Jamaica," Mr Edwards said in a statement issued to the press on Thursday.

Whether there may be tweaks or wholesale recalibration in arriving at a settled suite of solutions, it is imperative that Jamaica's political elite lay out credible policies and timelines to change the status quo. After all, too much talk makes one thirsty.