HURRICANE SANDY and other weather systems that impacted the island this year have exposed weaknesses in the country's environmental governance structure which require serious attention, if only for the purpose of protecting our fragile economy.
The preliminary estimate of the cost of the economic dislocation of Hurricane Sandy has been placed at $5 billion. After each hurricane cycle, the Jamaican economy takes several backward steps in terms of gross domestic product. While we can't make the country disaster-proof, we can mitigate the damage by passing and enforcing environmental laws.
As the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reported in its Global Environmental Outlook 5, "Most Latin-American and Caribbean countries have developed national environmental, legal and institutional frameworks, but have limited enforcement capacity."
In Jamaica's case, inadequate enforcement of environmental regulations has been manifested in corruption of the building approval process. This has resulted in the destruction, particularly, of houses that were built in flood-prone locations. In other instances, residential dwellings have been constructed in locations prone to land slippage.
Poor environmental governance was also demonstrated by the failure of the Jamaica Public Service Company, as well as property owners, to systematically prune trees with branches endangering power lines. This is a preventative measure that should be enforced by the relevant state agency.
Improve environmental regional governance
In order to improve environmental governance in the region, UNEP has called for actions in the following areas: education and environmental culture, and improved public participation; collaboration and coordination; and improving environmental justice.
The effective policing of environmental laws requires partnership between the community and several arms of government, which must collaborate with each other. In addition, clear jurisdictional authority and function must be established among complementary agencies with responsibility for environmental management: parish councils, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), public health department, solid waste management. For example, it has been observed that the dumping of waste increases when the public waste disposal service has broken down.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the NEPA warned the public against the open burning of waste, citing two pieces of law. Open burning has been common practice, even in urban communities. The activity results in the release of pollutants or emissions which are harmful to humans. Why are these laws not enforced, and people educated about them, during normal times?
Open burning also raises the issue of the disposal of hazardous waste and chemicals. As the UNEP report noted, "Emerging issues, such as endocrine-disrupting chemicals, plastic in the environment, open burning, and the manufacture and use of nano-materials and chemicals in products, require action to better understand them and prevent harm to human health and the environment."
Going forward, in order to minimise the impact of natural catastrophes, at the national and individual levels, the State must reform and enforce environmental laws - many of which have rubber teeth because of the ridiculously low fines for breaches.
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