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EDITORIAL - Mr Pickersgill's poor show

Published:Tuesday | July 22, 2014 | 12:00 AM

It is probably easier to say when, over the last quarter of a century, Bobby Pickersgill did not have ministerial responsibility for water. There was that period, from 1998 to 2001, when P.J. Patterson kept him away from the portfolio, and there were the four years, from 2007 to 2011, when Mr Pickersgill's party was out of office.

Otherwise, since the People's National Party (PNP) returned to government in 1989, Robert Dixon Pickersgill, under various titles, has been the man in charge of Jamaica's water policy and to whom the various agencies responsible for implementing strategies reported. Not even Mr Pickersgill, we feel, would claim to have done a good job. He is likely to agree to having done rather poorly.

The fact is, despite these days being loaded with the grand title of minister of water, land, environment and climate change, we do not sense that Mr Pickersgill has internalised the gravity of the job and the magnitude of the issues, domestically and globally, with which he has to contend. He does hardly more, it appears, than regurgitate the well-trodden phrases about global warming and deforestation, and is sure to talk about water in the context of social welfare - that the Government is delivering a benefit to people. Large conceptual issues matter little.

Perchance we were being unfair to Mr Pickersgill, he would have given little cause for reassessment with his Sunday evening broadcast about the drought affecting Jamaica and the administration's initiative to mitigate the crisis. He gave figures about the shortage up to the month of May and talked about the trucking of water to some communities - a programme that was the signal initiative of Karl Blythe for those four years, including the first one of the new century, when Mr Patterson decided to have somebody else have a go at water. And Mr Pickersgill talked about cleaning catchments and "unscrupulous persons" who chop down trees.

Not irrelevant issues

These, of course, are not irrelevant issues to the immediate problem. But there is a larger strategic conversation to be had about water and management of the resource in the 21st century, against the backdrop of another significant part of Mr Pickersgill's portfolio, climate change, and the geopolitical issues that are likely to attend water. There is, too, Jamaica's economic crisis and the constraints this imposes on the Government's ability to run a water company that loses money in a fashion to how its leaky pipes fritter away the commodity.

That is a debate yet to be seriously engaged - a 21st-century policy for water.

For instance, we are yet to hear projections of Jamaica's water availability, say, over the next 40 years, and how climate change is likely to influence this. There seems to be some vague idea about water harvesting, but no rigour about how this relates to development approval, or another element of Mr Pickersgill's portfolio, land-use management. Also, there is the matter of the pricing of water, at J$0.39 per gallon, by a company that loses J$6 billion a year, has a debt of more than J$17 billion, has J$1.4 billion more debt than assets and earns nothing from 68 per cent of the commodity that it produces.

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