THE NEXT 50 YEARS: A better flow - Improvement to Jamaica's water supply needed

Published: Sunday | December 23, 2012 Comments 0

Jamaica continues to celebrate 50 years of Independence. We have achieved a great deal; however, there is much work left to be done if we are to progress as a country. We must begin to tackle Jamaica's chronic problems in a targeted and sustained way to make this country a better place to live, work, and grow families. The Next 50 Years, a special Gleaner series, will spotlight some of the challenges we must fix in the coming years. We want to hear from you. Email us at and join the debate.

Basil Fernandez, Contributor

IT IS important to understand the evolutionary changes in the water resources and supply process that have taken place prior to Independence and post-Independence.

To date, there have been seven phases: pre-1880; 1880-1940; 1941-1960; 1961-1977; 1978-1985; 1986-1996; 1997-2012; 2012 and beyond. In each phase, significant milestones were achieved. The beyond-2012 period will describe the actions that have to be taken to ensure the sustainable management of water resources and the improvement of water supply islandwide to support national development.

Pre-1880 Phase:

This phase was characterised by the utilisation of relatively small quantities of surface and groundwater resources to mainly satisfy the household needs of the native population and the early European settlers.

Water was also used by the European settlers to satisfy the demands of sugar factories and old aqueducts across the island which transported water to sugar factories. All estates had their own factory as there was no centralised factory.

Groundwater was abstracted using windmills from wells that were dug by hand in the shallow alluvium (sand and gravel) that formed the agricultural plains particularly in the parishes of St Catherine and Clarendon. Today, there are many hand-dug wells still being used in their original state while others have been modified by drilling and gravel packed in them to ensure a reliable system and yield.

Forerunners of the water supply to Kingston date back to as early as 1766 when Roger Hope Elleston, owner of The Hope Estate, constructed an open aqueduct to carry surplus water from his property, through which ran the Hope River, to the town of Kingston. The system fell into a state of disrepair, and its operation was eventually discontinued in 1777.

One of the first-ever piped water-supply systems in the Western Hemisphere originated in the town of Falmouth, Trelawny, using the Martha Brae River as its source. In 1799, the Falmouth Water Works Company was established to supply Water Square in the town of Falmouth as well as visiting ships.

The Headworks Dam at Crescent in St Catherine was constructed to divert water from the Rio Cobre into canals that served the intensely cultivated lower St Catherine Plains.

1880-1940 Phase:

This phase was marked by the attempt to harness surface water on a larger scale to meet commercial, municipal, and agricultural needs.

Included in this phase were the diversion of the Hope River, the construction of the canal/aqueduct and Mona Reservoir to transport and store the water, and the construction of the Hermitage Dam and Reservoir.

The Kingston and St Andrew Water Commission supplied water to the city of Kingston from Mona, plus a number of wells at Cavaliers, Trench Town, Montgomery Corner, Havendale, and Forest Hills, to name a few.

The National Water Authority (NWA) supplied water to all areas outside the city of Kingston using a mixture of springs, wells, and river systems.

This phase saw the introduction of mechanical well-drilling into the island-percussion, or cable tool rigs (Bucyrus Erie). Wells were deeper, of smaller diameter, completed more quickly, and had a longer lifetime. The introduction of mechanical well-drilling led to the widespread use of groundwater and expanded agricultural production.

1941-1960 Phase:

This phase was marked by the large-scale development of groundwater through the mechanical drilling of wells to satisfy the irrigation demands of Tate and Lyle on the Clarendon Plains, and of the United Fruit Company on the St Catherine Plains. They maintained their own well-drilling equipment, but most of the wells were drilled by Waterwell and Engineering Construction and Jamaica Antonsanti, well companies that have now gone out of business. At one time, Monymusk had over 100 wells pumping from both the alluvium and limestone aquifers for irrigation of sugar cane in Clarendon.

Bernard Lodge, Caymanas, and Innswood estates in St Catherine, and Sevens and New Yarmouth estates in Clarendon all operated sugar factories with high water demand supplied by groundwater through the operation of a number of high-yielding wells and surface water from the Rio Cobre and Rio Minho, respectively.

This rapid development phase of water-resources development led to the problem of high salinity of the groundwater, with seawater intruding into the limestone aquifers of the Rio Minho in Clarendon and the hydrologic basins of the Rio Cobre in St Catherine.

This was the phase when no permit or licence was required to drill and abstract water. This phase is called "The phase of no control" of water-resources management and groundwater development.

The phase was also marked by:

The first systematic collection of streamflow measurements by the Public Works Department (PWD) to aid in the design and construction of bridges. These measurements were used to start the streamflow database of the present Water Resource Authority (WRA).

Groundwater-level data were collected by the Geological Survey Department and large sugar estates in Clarendon and St Catherine on the south coast of the island.

The first water-level contour map of any place in Jamaica was drawn for Clarendon and was produced in June or July 1941.

1961-1977 Phase:

This is the most important phase in the understanding of Jamaica's water resources. It saw the introduction of the first water resources management tool. This phase was marked by:

The introduction of legislation to control well-drilling - a response to the uncontrolled well-drilling and the resultant problem of saline intrusion into the limestone aquifers of the Clarendon and St Catherine Plains. The Underground Water Control Law was drafted in 1959 and passed into law in 1961. The law functioned as the main instrument of water-resources management. The law required the establishment of the Underground Water Authority within the Ministry of Agriculture. The Authority was the implementer of the law and issued licences to drill wells and abstract water. The law also required the minister with portfolio responsibility to declare areas of the island critical, and everyone in a critical area had to apply for a licence to drill.

The first areas declared critical were St Catherine and Clarendon, due to the salinity problems, and several years later, St Elizabeth was included when the construction of the Luana oil refinery was proposed. Yallahs in St Thomas followed.

The first licence was granted for the drilling of a well at Rhymesbury in Clarendon and was issued on February 18, 1964. It was signed by the late John Pusey of the Ministry of Agriculture, who was then the chairman of the Underground Water Authority.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) - Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)-Government of Jamaica(GoJ) water-resources assessment of various areas of the island began in 1965 in the Black River Basin in St Elizabeth. These investigations constituted the first comprehensive water-resources evaluation ever undertaken in Jamaica. The results of the studies provided the guidelines for further development of water resources for domestic and irrigation use.

Between 1965 and 1973, the following basins and sub-basins would be assessed and inventories of resources and demands completed: Martha Brae - Trelawny; Montego River - St James; Bull Savannah - St Elizabeth; Rio Minho - Clarendon; Rio Cobre - St Catherine; Moneague - St Ann; Negril - Westmoreland; and Dry Harbour Mountains - St Ann. The project maintained a number of small coring rigs and one mud rotary drill rig, which were used for exploration and determination of geology, water levels, and aquifer characteristics. During the period of the projects, the streamflow network was expanded, with the construction of gauges on the major rivers across the island. The project maintained large drilling and construction units.

The Water Resources Division (WRD) was established in the Geological Survey Department in 1970, and the Jamaican staff attached to the UNDP-FAO water-resources project was seconded to the WRD.

The island went through a severe drought in1976-77, and in 1977, the Government took the decision to declare the entire island critical and subjected all well-drilling to licensing. (The requirement for a licence to drill has since remained in force.) During this drought period, the wells drilled by the UNDP-FAO-GoJ project were all commissioned by the National Water Authority to meet the demand for drinking water in St James, Trelawny, St Elizabeth, Clarendon, and St Catherine. In 1973, the Water Resources Division drilled the Up Park Camp well to meet the demands of the military personnel and equipment at Up Park Camp as well as the Beverly Hills well for the Water Commission.

The first draft of a comprehensive water law for Jamaica was completed by an FAO legal consultant.

The need for a water resources master plan to guide decisions for development and allocation of water resources was formally accepted by the Government of Jamaica in 1967.

1978-1985 Phase:

During these years, efforts to more efficiently manage the island's water resources increased.

Efforts concentrated on rehabilitation of overdeveloped aquifers in Clarendon and St Catherine and on the rational development of underutilised potential in other aquifers such as Black River in St Elizabeth.

The WRD continued the UNDP-FAO programme with assessments of the Upper Rio Cobre (Linstead-Bog Walk) sub-basin and the Liguanea Aquifer of the Kingston Basin, as well as with the monitoring of ground and surface-water resources across the island to build the database that was to be used for the enhanced understanding of the island's water resources.

In 1980, the merger of the National Water Authority, which had responsibility for rural water supply, and the Kingston and St Andrew Water Commission, which had responsibility for Kingston's water supply, took place to form the National Water Commission (NWC), which had responsibility for all water supply islandwide.

The project to prepare a national water resources master plan was started in 1984.

In 1984, the WRD staff was seconded to the Underground Water Authority, which was an unstaffed, statutory agency with responsibility for improving emoluments and retaining staff.

The Carib Engineering Corporation Limited (CECL) was established in 1983 to implement the Yallahs Pipeline Project as the first phase of the Blue Mountain Water Supply Project. The Yallahs Pipeline brought water from the Yallahs and Negro Rivers in St Thomas to the Mona Reservoir for meeting the demand of the city of Kingston. The pipeline was completed in 1986. The transfer of water from St Thomas via the Yallahs Pipeline led to the closure of many agricultural farms that were now deprived of water for irrigation.

1986-1996 Phase:

The Water Resources Development Master Plan report was completed. The plan included the first comprehensive inventories of resources and demands for the 10 hydrologic basins, the spatial units of management into which the island was divided. The hydrostratigraphy of the island was identified and mapped. The water type - ground or surface - was linked to the hydrostratigraphy.

The first draft of the new Water Resources Act was prepared. It was discussed with all stakeholders and taken to the Legislative Committee of Parliament where it was vetted and passed.

In 1995, the Water Resources Act was passed by both Houses of Parliament.

The Water Resources Act 1995 was promulgated into law in April 1996. The Water Resources Authority was established by the passage of the law. The Water Resources Act replaced 32 pieces of legislation that affected water-resources management. The Water Resources Act 1995 was the response to

1) Increasing trends in water demand and pollution of ground and surface-water threats from floods and droughts;

2) The need for a cohesive policy and legislative framework to guide planning and rational development;

3) The need for a unified and integrated approach to water-resources management.

The allocation framework was revised and implemented. A permit to drill and a licence to abstract and use water were now required for all groundwater systems while surface water, which had not previously required a licence, was now subject to a licence. The interaction between ground and surface water was recognised and water quality in aquifers and streams mandated to the newly established WRA. Well-drillers were subject to licensing. Illegal abstractors were targeted.

1997-2012 Phase:

The WRA was revamped and new personnel added to modernise the agency and to fulfil the mandate of the Water Resources Act. Standards were set for well-drilling, yield tests, and obtaining licences.

A diagnostic study of the Authority was carried out. Research projects aimed at improving and increasing knowledge of the water resources of Jamaica, to be completed over the next 20 years, were identified.

An integrated water-resources management (IWRM) framework was developed and moves made to implement IWRM-holistic management of water resources. The interagency linkages that would lead to successful IWRM were created.

There has been emphasis on public education and on informing the political directorate of the need to provide funding for water-resources management, not just water-supply development, as the latter is not sustainable without the former.

  • Full computerisation of data and maps has been achieved.
  • A GIS unit has been established and persons have been trained.

In 1998, the Ministry of Water was established and all water-sector agencies were brought together for first time. This has led to improved cooperation, increased water development, and the recognition of the importance of integrated water-resources management. There has been tremendous success in implementing large-scale water supply and sewerage projects across the island. Access to potable water has increased from under 70 per cent to over 80 per cent.

The Chair and postgraduate course in water-resources management at the University of the West Indies (UWI) was established through collaboration with the WRA, the Jamaica Bauxite Institute, and the UWI. The establishment of the Chair was intended to address the need for a trained cadre of professionals in water-resources management in the Caribbean. To date, 12 persons have graduated from this course with one each working at the WRA and the NWC.

The National Water Sector Policy was first drafted by the managing director of the Water Resources Authority in 1994. A steering committee was established to review and complete the policy. The Inter-American Development Bank provided grant funding to complete the water policy, which was achieved in 1999 and subsequently accepted by Cabinet. Public presentations of the water policy islandwide were completed in 2002. The policy was laid in Parliament in October 2003. It was upgraded in 2004.

Significant gains were made by working with the bauxite/alumina companies operating in Jamaica in reducing water-resources contamination through the sealing of waste- disposal sites, improved waste-disposal techniques, and the reuse of caustic effluent in the bauxite-to-alumina process.

The Carib Engineering Company Ltd had its name changed in 2004 to the Rural Water Supply Limited to concentrate on upgrading rural water supply in rural Jamaica where the access to safe drinking water was less than 50 per cent.

Ongoing assessment of the island's water resources has led the WRA to:

  • ❍ Upgrade the Water Resources Master Plan, enabled by grant funding from the Inter-American Develop-ment Bank;
  • ❍ Assess the water quality around bauxite/alumina plants, facilitated by grant funding from the International Atomic Energy Agency;
  • ❍ Assess the saline intrusion into coastal limestone aquifers, implemented regionally with Barbados and Antigua and Barbuda as partners through funding from the Organization of American States;
  • Undertake completing the water-resources assessment of the Cabarita River Basin;
  • Undertake completing the risk vulnerability of the island's aquifers using the DRASTIC methodology;
  • Establish a Web-enabled database so that the WRA's entire database is now accessible to the public-free of cost;
  • Assess the potential for rainwater harvesting across the island;
  • Model climate-change impacts on groundwater using various scenarios;
  • Using models, assess the possible impact of sea-level rise and climate change on the water resources of the Yallahs Delta;
  • Upgrade the hydrologic network to provide data for the assessment of the impacts of climate change on water resources.

The NWC is now producing 190 million imperial gallons of potable water per day from 160 wells, 116 river systems, and 147 springs islandwide.

Beyond 2012:

The WRA is now planning for further evolution of the management of water resources which includes improved documentation of information; more water- resources assessments; improved data collection through real-time systems, using GSM; increased public education programmes; modelling and monitoring of climate-change impacts; and working with regional partners across the Caribbean to improve water-resources management and supply sustainability.

The management of the island's water resources will become critical in the near future with the full onset of the impact of climate change.

Recommendations Going Forward:

  • Improve the transmission of water and efficiency of use in all sectors - irrigation, public supply, industrial, and tourism.
  • Immediately reuse treated effluent, which is a valuable resource now going to waste.
  • Implement rainwater harvesting, manage artificial recharge of aquifers, and reduce non-revenue water.

Failure to implement the above will lead to Jamaica's inability to meet future water demands and to mitigate the impact of climate change.

Basil Fernandez is managing director of the Water Resources Authority. Send comments to

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