Mon | Jun 17, 2019

Editorial | Three-card water trick at Bernard Lodge

Published:Monday | April 22, 2019 | 12:21 AM

Don’t take at face value Peter Clarke’s declamation about a “moratorium” on new abstraction of water from the aquifers and rivers in the Rio Cobre Basin. It hides more than it reveals. And what is hidden is injurious to Jamaica’s agriculture.

Mr Clarke is the managing director of the Water Resources Authority (WRA). He succeeded the globally respected hydrologist, Basil Fernandez, who has warned that water supply in the area is badly stressed and will grow worse with continued residential and commercial real-estate developments, such as the new city at Bernard Lodge being developed by the Holness administration.

There are several reasons to be concerned about this idea. Bernard Lodge, a former sugar cane plantation, sits on the alluvial plains of St Catherine and possesses some of Jamaica’s richest soil. But, like much of Jamaica’s most fertile land, the area has, in recent decades, tumbled to the pressure of real-estate developers.

suitable for agriculture

Indeed, only an estimated 37 per cent of the island is suitable for agriculture, but as Lenworth Fulton, the president of the Jamaica Agricultural Society, noted recently, only 19.5 per cent of that arable land is now available for farming. Most of that reduction has happened over the past half-century as homes, businesses and hard infrastructure encroached on farmlands.

Matters are about to get worse. At Bernard Lodge, for instance, where significant bits have already been gobbled up for housing, another 4,600 acres are being appropriated by the Government and sold to developers for Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ new city, which is to accommodate 17,000 houses, as well as factories and other facilities.

A year ago, writing in this newspaper, Mr Fernandez brought up the low rejuvenation and declining water table in the Rio Cobre Basin aquifers, as well as a decision to ban new developments atop the aquifers. He estimated that domestic demand for water at the new city would be 15,000 cubic metres, or around 3.32 million imperial gallons a day.

“This does not include the water demand for the industrial and other amenities,” Mr Fernandez wrote. “This water demand cannot be met, neither from the alluvium aquifer nor the limestone aquifer of the Lower Rio Cobre Sub-basin, the water resources of which are both over-allocated.”

His successor, Mr Clarke, has a way around that, while maintaining “no new abstraction, no matter who you are”. Peter will be deprived to the benefit of Paul. Or, in this case, agriculture, via the National Irrigation Commission (NIC), will get less so that the demand of the new Bernard Lodge city can be quenched.

This is how Mr Clarke puts it: “So, of the amount that the NIC was licensed by the WRA to abstract from the Rio Cobre … the NIC has ceded 17 million gallons of water a day to the NWC (National Water Commission). Of this amount, 15 million gallons per day will be used for direct production of water for domestic supply and two million gallons for plant operations.” Of the potable water, 3.5 million gallons a day will be for the new city.

The argument will be that the NIC does not utilise the volume of water allocated to it. Which is true. That’s because of the fall in demand on the St Catherine plains because of a decline in sugar production. But it also reflects the failure of Jamaica’s governments to craft policies to encourage agricultural production on the best lands and to foster a programme for food security.

The Bernard Lodge city, with its permanent concrete slabs covering rich, loamy soil and the diverting of water to its homes, factories and stores, will further foreclose on this option of rescuing agriculture and building food security. And the agriculture minister, Audley Shaw, remains voluminously quiet on the issue.