Tue | Oct 23, 2018

Looking back, looking forward | Hurricanes and Cockpit Country

Published:Sunday | November 26, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Puerto Rico is one of a number of locations hit by a slew of hurricanes in the Caribbean and the United States.
In this September 10, 2017, photo released by Granma, men play dominoes in the middle of a flooded street as others pull broken furniture from calf-high water in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Havana, Cuba.
A section of Jamaica’s Cockpit Country reserve, one of the most valued areas of forest cover on the island.

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season (which is not yet over) has seen a very high level of tropical storm and hurricane activity, with catastrophic damage inflicted on several of our Caribbean neighbours - Antigua and Barbuda, St Kitts and Nevis, Anguilla, Dominica, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, St Maarten, Turks and Caicos Islands, The US and British Virgin Islands, and others, as well as Latin America and the United States.

Jamaica has been spared a direct hit this year (so far), but there is no room for complacency or celebration. Given warming ocean temperatures caused by global climate change, predictions are that the 2017 season will become more the norm than the exception. We can no longer expect that the climate of the past is a good predictor of the future. No short- medium-, or long-term plan for Jamaica should fail to consider the likely and serious impacts of climate change.

Apart from the potential for more frequent and more severe storms, global climate change also means sea-level rise. It is difficult to quote precise numbers because of the uncertainties about how quickly glaciers and ice caps will melt and also how steeply emissions might be reduced, but many coastal cities are already experiencing much more frequent flooding.

Jamaica is particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise as much of our critical infrastructure is at sea level - all our ports, both airports, and many roads. Sea-level rise also makes the storm surge in hurricanes worse and threatens underground water supplies near the coast.

Wake-up call for Jamaica

The 2017 hurricane season is a wake-up call for Jamaica. How much progress have we made towards climate resilience?

Broadly, climate resilience means the capacity of a society to absorb the range of shocks produced by global climate change. These shocks include storm damage to critical infrastructure, more intense rainfall over shorter periods, more frequent and severe droughts, reduction of fresh water supplies, range expansion of pests (like mosquitoes), adverse impacts on traditional agriculture and fisheries, more hotter days and fewer cooler nights.

According to a 2014 technical report done by the Climate Studies Group at UWI, Mona, entitled Near-Term Climate Scenarios for Jamaica (pg 2-13) done for the Planning Institute of Jamaica, the island could face a reduction in rainfall by up to 44 per cent by the end of the century, part of a general drying trend.

Which takes us to Cockpit Country - Jamaica's largest remaining forested area, sitting over significant underground water resources. Paradoxically, Cockpit Country has a lot of rain but very little surface water due to its geology. The overlaying forests channel rain through soil and permeable limestone rock via fissures and caves to the aquifer beneath. Six major rivers rise or flow from Cockpit Country: Black River, Great River, Montego River, Martha Brae, Rio Bueno, and Hector's River. More than 30 springs, streams, ponds, and upwellings contribute to these major rivers and also provide sources of fresh water for local people. Cockpit Country is the source of about 40 per cent of the freshwater supply for western Jamaica, including the tourist industry.

What are the potential impacts of mining and quarrying on water supplies? To get at the ore bodies, mining operations remove soil and forest cover, which, in turn, will increase the speed at which rain reaches the limestone bedrock and increase flash flooding. Mining needs roads, opening up formerly inaccessible areas, which then suffer from a range of other harmful impacts such as further deforestation. Dust and overburden (the soil removed to get at the ore underneath) can increase turbidity in rivers, affecting the ability of treatment facilities to process fresh water. Because the underground water connections of the Cockpit Country have been insufficiently studied and understood, mining in one area can affect water supplies in other areas far away.

Cockpit Country is literally a water bank. Its vast stores of fresh water, if preserved, will provide a buffer against droughts and reduced rainfall. If we were serious about climate resilience, this important region would already have been closed to mining and quarrying - for almost ten years, the Government of Jamaica (GOJ) has promised to establish Cockpit Country's boundaries, and enact legal protection, but this has not yet happened. In 2013, the GOJ commissioned a boundary study, carried out by the University of the West Indies, which conducted widespread public consultation, made clear recommendations as to boundaries and described the opposition of Jamaicans within and without Cockpit Country to mining or quarrying.

In 2017, using Jamaica House's new petition portal, a petition to save Cockpit Country and close it to mining and quarrying met and exceeded the 15,000 online signature target, attracting 20,914 signatures. Volunteers collected an additional 16,647 signatures on paper petitions, including 808 from children under 18 years. The GOJ promised a response in 30 days on September 25, but this was not met.

As we observe, assist, and empathise with our Caribbean neighbours as they struggle to recover from the 2017 hurricane season, we should be firm in our intention to improve Jamaica's ability to withstand the immense stresses of climate change. We should start with legal protection of one of our most significant fresh water assets.

- Jamaica Environment Trust

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was submitted prior to Government's announcement that no mining is to take place in the Cockpit Country)