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Earth Today | Countdown to Cockpit Country boundary decision continues

Published:Wednesday | August 2, 2017 | 12:00 AMPetre Williams-Raynor
An expansive view of Jamaica's biodiversity-rich Cockpit Country.
Diana McCaulay

AS THE clock continues to tick on a boundary for the ecologically sensitive Cockpit Country, the word is that a final decision may come down to freshwater security considerations.

Environmentalist and head of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) Diana McCaulay, believes this is essential.

"There are a range of concerns, but the one that perhaps most people will share is the water supply," she told The Gleaner.

"Cockpit Country sits over a very large area of underground water, which supplies about 40 per cent of the water for western Jamaica," she added.

The 2010 Ecosystem Profile: The Caribbean Islands Biodiversity Hotspot report bears testament to this while pointing to some of the area's additional credits.

"Cockpit Country is the source for fresh water used by 40 per cent of Jamaicans, and the area is essential in moderating the flow and preventing flooding of a number of western Jamaica's rivers," reads the report prepared by BirdLife International in collaboration with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust/Bath University and the New York Botanical Garden.

"Cockpit Country supports the largest number of globally threatened species of any key biodiversity area in the Caribbean Islands Hotspot, with 59 including 11 amphibians and 40 plant species. The area is a unique expanse of wet forest on a limestone karst landscape," adds the report, for which technical support was provided by Conservation International Centre for Applied Biodiversity Science.


Jamaica has suffered


In the face of climate-change realities, which threaten more extreme weather events such as droughts - the impact of which Jamaica has suffered in recent years - water security, it appears, can hardly be ignored.

The State of the Jamaican Climate Report 2015, now in draft, itself speaks to how important water considerations are.

"Water in Jamaica is sourced mainly from groundwater sources which contribute (84 per cent) to local water supply. They are recharged by rainfall. Climate change is likely to affect the delivery of this Vision 2030 commitment, because water quality and availability is subjected to climatic conditions," reads the report authored by a team from the Climate Studies Group, Mona.

"Increasing temperature and extreme events will increase evaporation and sedimentation of water. Furthermore, the proximity of basins to the coast is likely to increase saltwater intrusion into local water supply," it added, painting a picture of what is at stake.

Basil Fernandez, former head of the Water Resources Authority, noted the need to protect the water resources - no matter the boundary.

"Regardless of which one of the boundaries you have, the point is, as stated by Water Resources Authority (WRA) in a report done for The Nature Conservancy some time ago, in the western section of the island, 40 per cent of the island's water comes from Cockpit Country. So you would want to protect that water resource ... it needs to be protected," said the retiree.

Several boundary options have been proposed by various interest groups. They include the one advanced by the Cockpit Country Stakeholders' Group, comprised of entities such as the Windsor Research Centre. The largest of the proposed boundaries, it takes in St Ann, St Elizabeth, St James, and Trelawny.

There are also the Ring Road boundary that takes in Trelawny and St Elizabeth as well as:

- the Sweeting/University of the West Indies (UWI) boundary;

- the Maroon boundary comprised of Trelawny and St Elizabeth;

- the Forestry Reserve boundary; and

- the smallest of the group, Jamaica Bauxite Institute boundary.

McCaulay, meanwhile, appears to make the case for acceptance of a boundary that provides the largest area of protection.

"How that underground water gets there (inside Cockpit Country) is because it percolates from rain into the forest, and through the limestone into the ground," she said.

"When you remove the forest cover, which you would necessarily have to do for mining, much more of the water runs off and does not get underground. So it reduces the amount of water underground and which is available for us to use," McCaulay added.

And in what may be interpreted as a final plea to the Government, the JET boss said: "The decisions that we take now about things like protecting forests and mangrove forests and seagrass beds, all the natural features that make us more resilient to climate change, are going to have profound consequences for Jamaica's future."