Mon | Jul 13, 2020

Chronic water woes plague North West Clarendon

Published:Sunday | February 23, 2020 | 12:00 AMClovis B. Nelson - Contributor
Today, the pipes in every yard are permanently dry relics and serve as little icons of yesteryear.
The issue is not the availability of water: the problem rests squarely with the ignorance and short-sightedness of elected officials and the relevant authorities to effectively improve and monitor a modern water supply system.
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It is incredulous to grasp that on the cusp of the 21st century, despite extensive population growth, and the unquestionable increase in demand, that the constituency of North West Clarendon is still leaning on Edwin Allen’s 70-year-old infrastructural facilities.

MY VIVID CHILDHOOD MEMORIES

As a son of the soil and resident of the Frankfield division in Jamaica, I am personally aware of the many springs and naturally watered gullies – not to mention my days as a schoolboy, swimming and fishing in some of the deepest holes in one of Jamaica’s most prominent rivers, the Rio Minho. I have been navigating the hills and gullies of the region since I was a boy, and it is tantalising and poignant knowing that there is “water, water, everywhere”, yet most people cannot get a drop to drink.

Very late at night, water would sometimes creep its way through the old galvanised lines to the top of Andrew Hill. I can clearly remember the musical sounds of exuberant voices, clamouring steel buckets, aluminium pudding pans, and tar drums that marked the community’s water-catching fiesta, which seemed almost festive.

The variety of clashing vessels competed with the echoes of happy voices of children – who would rather not sleep – and the bellowing and complaining of exhausted adults hustling together to get their fill while discussing everything from farming experiences of the day to misguided current affairs or passionate politics.

That was all happening under the penetrating moonlight, that highlighted the silvery sides of shimmering banana leaves, often mistaken by the children to be dancing duppy. Or, in the dreaded darkness, filled with black smoke from ‘kitchen-bitch’ or bottle-torches. The noise of night creatures echoed in the dense thickness of distant bushes, like God-made music.

Back then, optimism filled the air, and one would have thought that water issues would have improved 40 years later. Instead, things have undoubtedly regressed significantly.

DROPPING THE BALL, A LONG TIME AGO

The National Water Commission (NWC) of Jamaica has seemingly fallen into some sense of complacency, has failed to improve the service and has made retrograde steps. Today, the pipes in every yard are permanently dry relics and serve as little icons of yesteryear. Every soul today, young and old, must walk for miles to find this treasured commodity, or prepare to buy it from the water predators who are rumoured to be manipulating and disrupting its usual flow.

Yes, it is easy to blame the problem on drought rather than facing the fact that the communities continue to suffer from poor and outdated infrastructure. The broken support includes antique water pumps, inadequate transfer capacities of critical water transmission mains, minimal comparable development, and maintenance of the old reservoirs and public supply systems in general.

Shocking to me, I find myself carrying water from a greater distance than I did as a child on my return from studying in the United States. Many residents continue to be plagued by the lack of water and are still getting water bills from the NWC, although they have not had piped water to their homes for over 40 years.

‘THE DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH’

I believe that it is fair to assert that something is very wrong with the way the NWC and the municipal corporation handle domestic water for rural hill dwellers.

As the third-largest parish in Jamaica, Clarendon covers an area of over 1,196 square kilometres with 259,098 citizens, and is known for its many surface water supply sources, such as the Peace River, Pindars River, Rio Minho, and the Pedro River, beyond its numerous tributaries and springs.

The NWC is responsible for the regulation, implementation, and sustenance of the primary domestic source of water in the parish. According to the Clarendon water supply plan published on October 12, 2011, it is estimated that just 66 per cent or 42,719 families benefit from the domestic water supply.

The issue is not the availability of water: the problem rests squarely with the ignorance and short-sightedness of elected officials and the relevant authorities to effectively improve and monitor a modern water supply system. Consequently, the lack of prioritisation of the people’s basic needs, the blatant lack of accountability, and the gross negligence towards people in the constituency have seemingly become the norm. The people of Frankfield and its surroundings are exhausted from empty promises, political disappointments, and neglect that feed into an air of bewildered hopelessness.

BIG-UP THE MAN CALLED ‘CHICKEN’

I am pleased to write that a concerned citizen, aka ‘Chicken’, has taken it unto himself to supply water to citizens in some sections of North West Clarendon. I applaud the man big time. He carries the expense of running water lines to houses across a given area which his source is supplying by gravity flow. My concern, however, rests with the question of the treatment of his supply. The people are therefore advised not to use that water for drinking.

One idea I have is for the dredging, cleaning, and damming of an uppermost area of the Rio Minho’s source, (River Head). The idea is to build a reservoir (dam) from the river source that could send water as far as Kingston by gravity flow and could be retrofitted with water treatment and hydroelectric capabilities. This should be a priority of the Mines and Geology Division and the NWC, and other stakeholders like investors. It does not require a genius to understand that the geography of the region boasts multiple natural water sources that emerge from some of the highest hilly areas, second only to the Blue Mountain landscape.

A recent discussion with my 92-year-old father, Curtis B. Nelson – a building contractor, structural engineer, a builder of houses, schools, bridges and roads and a well-respected resident of the constituency – brought me face to face with a memory from my childhood. The conversation took place in the town square of Frankfield in Clarendon, where I roamed as a child in the early ’70s. During this discussion, I could still see familiar cracks on the broken and dirty sidewalks that reflect the level of profound neglect. The old and crumbling walls of the primarily Georgian style architecture paint a dismal picture; it dawned on me how much the town is stagnant. The only evidence of modernity is a clutter – litter of Japanese imported cars which seriously clog the streets – leaving little room for pedestrian commute and the traditional peddlers of goods.

The population has significantly outgrown the original intended use of the town. Yet the infrastructure still speaks to the extraordinary efforts of the late Edwin Allen, the father of civility and caring for the people of the constituency so many years ago. There is no question that the problem of critically poor infrastructure that is plaguing the region is immediate priority.

‘FLOGGING THE DEAD HORSE’

For years I have been advocating for an improved water developmental system for North West Clarendon and my pleas have seemingly fallen on deaf ears. It is rumoured that there is a plan afoot that is aimed at revamping some long-neglected and broken 50-year-old systems. To my knowledge, there has been no mention of building a modern comprehensive water treatment and distribution plant to fulfil the need thoroughly.

The need for a 21st-century treatment plant is critical, as such a plant would ensure satisfactory treatment levels for human consumption. No longer will we accept the placing of Band-Aid on an ulcer. Any supply of water to homes that is not carefully filtered, treated and frequently tested for quality control is and will be unacceptable.

GROWING HEALTH CONCERNS, AMID THE MEAT OF THE MATTER

Serious health concerns loom that, if left unchecked, could be more devastating than the long-term threat of dengue. The citizens of North West Clarendon are in a critical water shortage. These families deserve a long-overdue, properly structured, reliable water distribution and treatment system to address the long-standing inconvenience and related health risks. It must also be noted that the rise in the breeding of the Aedes aegypti mosquito is not only attributed to the carelessness of citizens in the way they discard their garbage but a lot of mosquito breeding also happens in water collection drums, and utensils deliberately set for the catching of rainwater.

One may, therefore, argue successfully that a large percentage of mosquito breeding is due to the lack of piped water distribution to homes across Jamaica. The real question, therefore, is who should bear the brunt of the blame, should it be attributed to the ignorance of the people, or the neglectful wickedness of their elected officials?

Successive governments have failed to advance the system despite the extensive growth in population that brought about added demands for water. When people are forced to ‘scoop-up’ water from holes in the ground, they are openly subjected to the possibility of major health issues, and hygienic sanitation problems. Safer water could prevent hundreds of child deaths from diarrhoea, malaria, malnutrition, and avoid lymphatic filariasis and trachoma.

SOME ECONOMIC IDEAS AND BENEFITS

“Investment to improve drinking water, sanitation, hygiene, and water resource management systems makes strong economic sense: By my calculations, every dollar invested can lead to eight dollars in benefits. In addition to the value of saved human lives, other benefits include higher economic productivity from better farming results, more education, and healthcare savings” (World Health Organization, 2019).

My vision is for the development of the upper Rio Minho river dam, the building of a proper reservoir in Smithville, and other high-level sources that will gravity feed to a comprehensive treatment and bottling plant. The water-bottling plant would also provide some degree of employment in the constituency.

I envision a kind of public-private partnership – a shares investment plan with the majority of the shares to be owned by the citizens. 40-60 per cent investment capital. This would be a share ‘growth investment’ where the value of the original investment grows over the medium to long term. Income would also be received from dividends, which are effectively a portion of the company’s profit paid out to its shareholders. An education programme to advise the shareholders would be offered so that the people would learn how equities works and the risks involved.

A RAY OF HOPE?

It is apparent that the government has a water plan, and a minister has been appointed to address water issues accordingly. It is refreshing to know that the new minister in question has seemingly picked up the baton of intent and has been moving with it expeditiously. I want to urge him to get busy collaborating with the relevant scientists, geologists, and engineers, in exploring the possibilities of serious water-distribution options that will encapsulate and put to use the many upper Clarendon sources as a national priority.

I welcome the minister and his sense of purpose and I am looking for nothing less than a severe water crisis transformation plan from the government. The focus of our new minister of water MUST be the task of building a 21st-century water development, treatment and distribution systems islandwide, starting with upper Clarendon.

As is the case with the mega highways and byways development through the country, the time has come for this debilitating water situation in North West Clarendon and the rest of the country to be addressed with national expediency. It MUST insist on the highest levels of urgency and seriousness.

With a new political interjection, I am confidently anticipating that common sense will bring a well-needed resolution. The future is here; the time is now!

- Dr Clovis B. Nelson is an educator and human rights activist from Frankfield, Clarendon, in rural Jamaica. He is also an education consultant in creative education design policy and curriculum development; a fine artist, sculptor and art educator working in Jamaica and the USA. He has written extensively on the STEM educational concept. Email feedback to clovisnel737@gmail.com and editorial@gleanerjm.com