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Editorial: Pickersgill under water

Published:Friday | July 31, 2015 | 12:00 AM

If you sense there is a deepening crisis over water and largely flapping responses to the recurring shortage of the commodity during Jamaica's increasingly prolonged annual droughts, you'll probably find the answer on the websites of the government ministry that is responsible for the resource, and the state-owned company that processes and distributes most of the commodity.

On the former, there are bright digital brochures, with snazzy pictures of the water, environment and climate change minister, Robert Pickersgill, outlining past and future projects and hailing the achievements of the ministry. It's all impressive. Or so it seems.

What is absent is any document purporting to be an overarching policy for the management of the resource; no strategic guidance for how it is to be allocated and/or conserved. In other words, there is no road map, or connecting of the dots.

On the website of the National Water Commission (NWC), if you search hard, there is a document called Jamaica Water Sector Policy Paper. But it is dated January 28, 1999. In other words, it is all of 16 years old. If the policy document has been updated, no one seems in a hurry to share the results with the public.

This is surprising and strange on several fronts.


Jamaica not immune


First, water, and how it is shared, especially between countries with contiguous borders, ranks with terrorism among the top global strategic and security issues of the times. Island states like Jamaica, which, too, bear the effects of global warming, are not immune from the impact of climate change - an appreciation demonstrated by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller with her creation of Mr Pickersgill's ministry and in her eloquent articulation to the United Nations Security Council last week of the problems of Small Island Developing States.

But there is an obvious and wide chasm between public acknowledgement of the big issues surrounding water, as Mrs Simpson Miller has done, and fashioning a strategic response to them, which Mr Pickersgill hasn't.

Indeed, Mr Pickersgill stands indicted for many failures. He hasn't made water sexy, in the sense of it being a topic that doesn't depend on the NWC's restrictions of supplies to consumers to be catapulted on to the national agenda as a substantial issue of policy debate.

Further, in more than three years in his current job, he has excited no discussion, much less promoted policy or legislative direction which would also directly impact the other areas of his ministerial portfolio. Until forced into a scramble by the current drought, neither did he nor his technocrats engage in fulsome discourse on if, and how, water might be moved from the surplus north to the heavily populated but underserved south of the island. Nor have they engaged with sustained seriousness on the relationship between environmental and development planning, or the lack thereof, on water resource management.

Another glaring failure of Mr Pickersgill is not, up to now, to have initiated a robust dialogue on the economics of water, including whether consumers should pay something closer to the economic cost of the product and whether government ownership of the NWC continues to be realistic, given the country's fiscal problems and the company's inability to finance the modernisation of its decrepit distribution system from its own resources.

Conclusion: Robert Pickersgill is the wrong man for water.