Cedric Stephens | The Jack’s Hill multifamily housing conundrum
Are banks and insurers parts of the problem?
INFORM is a multistakeholder forum for developing shared, quantitative analysis relevant to humanitarian crises and disasters. It includes organisations across the multilateral system, including the humanitarian and development sector, donors, and...
INFORM is a multistakeholder forum for developing shared, quantitative analysis relevant to humanitarian crises and disasters. It includes organisations across the multilateral system, including the humanitarian and development sector, donors, and technical partners.
The scientific lead for INFORM is the Joint Research Center of the European Commission. According to the International Monetary Fund, INFORM has ranked Jamaica among the world’s most vulnerable places to natural disasters. Its rating in the 2023 Index was 47th out of 191 countries.
There is public controversy about the wisdom of building multifamily housing developments in Jack’s Hill, St Andrew. On one side are the developers, the regulatory agencies, the banks, and the insurers. On the other are the residents, members of civil society, environmentalists, and others.
According to this newspaper, the country’s foremost geologist is UWI Professor Simon Mitchell. His area of expertise is the science that deals with the dynamics and physical history of the earth, generally (and about Jamaica in particular); the rocks of which it is composed; and the physical, chemical, and biological changes that the world and Jamaica have undergone or is undergoing. He has politely called the development projects in Jack’s Hill “potentially problematic”.
Are the folks at regulatory agencies – National Environment and Planning Agency and Kingston & St Andrew Municipal Corporation – asleep on their jobs?
This debate is taking place against a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria four months ago. It resulted in the loss of nearly 60,000 lives.
A months-long investigation and forensic analysis by The New York Times at the Renaissance Residence, the site of one of the “deadliest building collapse in the quake, resulted from flawed design and minimal oversight”. One former resident said she was “reassured by the pedigree of the building … a signature work of a prominent local firm headed by a well-known architect”.
“We never thought he would build a building that was not earthquake-proof,” she said.
Should it be inferred from the silence of the developers and the regulators that something is amiss?
Parris Lyew-Ayee Jr and Rafi Ahmad, in their Natural Hazards Atlas of Jamaica, describe the hazard profile of Kingston and St Andrew as follows: “The volcaniclastic Port Royal Mountains and Jack’s Hill make up the foothills of the Blue Mountains … these regions have significant landslide and debris-flow activity. These parishes have experienced the strongest earthquakes on record, with the 1692 earthquake devastating Port Royal, and the 1907 earthquake ravaging Kingston.”
The Government’s Mines and Geology Division has described the Jack’s Hill sites as “highly prone to several geo-hazards. The zone is characterised by moderate to steep slopes, high landslide susceptibility, moderate to high erodibility, and poor rock mass rating. The zone is not recommended for urban/suburban occupation, so engineering construction is not desirable in this area”.
The Gleaner reported on June 19 that drawing on the findings from his research and extensive mapping of the area, Prof Mitchell said that the Wag Water Fault Zone, an area 1.5 to 2.5 kilometres, runs through Jack’s Hill.
The US Geological Survey defines a fault as a fracture or zone of fractures between two blocks of rock. Faults allow the blocks to move relative to each other. This movement may occur rapidly, in the form of an earthquake, or slowly, in the form of creep. Faults may range in length from a few millimetres to thousands of kilometres.
Most faults produce repeated displacements over geologic time. During an earthquake, the rock on one side of the fault suddenly slips with respect to the other. The fault surface can be horizontal or vertical or at an arbitrary angle.
Banks and insurance companies provide financing and insurance coverage for building projects. They assess risks associated with a project before making lending and underwriting decisions. Soil conditions at the project site often affect underwriting decisions. Architects or engineers use the engineering properties of soil to determine whether it is suitable for construction.
Insurance companies overseas that have long said that “they’ll cover anything at the right price are increasingly ruling out fossil-fuel projects because of climate change”, according to a recent Associated Press report. “Like banks, insurers can leverage access to their services as an incentive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or exposure to the physical risks of climate change,” said Jason Thistlethwaite, an expert on the economic impacts of extreme weather at the University of Waterloo, Canada.
Over the coming decades, according to a June 2023 IMF report, “Jamaica is expected to experience more heat waves, more irregular rainfalls that bring heightened hazards of droughts or flooding, stronger tropical cyclones, and rising sea levels. Intensified climate hazards interact with socioeconomic vulnerability in Jamaica — since infrastructure, population, and tourism activities are concentrated in the coastal areas — amplifying climate-related costs to the country’s physical assets, population, and the broader economy.”
Are the island’s banks and insurance companies responsible for managing these emerging threats, or are they part of the problem?