Diana McCaulay | In search of the Rio Cobre
On August 1, Emancipation Day, I went to look at the Rio Cobre, which had suffered a devastating fish kill on July 30 -31 due to an effluent release from the bauxite-alumina refinery at Ewarton, currently owned by UC Rusal. By the time I got there, most of the dead fish had been collected from the banks and the smell of caustic and rotting fish was hardly apparent. The river looked much as it always does, green, full of invasive water hyacinths in the slow-moving sections although I did notice some dead fish and new scorching of the hyacinths.
This is a river anyone living in the parishes of Kingston and St Andrew, St Catherine, or Clarendon knows. Before the North-South Highway was completed in 2016, the main route to the north coast was over the storied Flat Bridge and through the Bog Walk Gorge, carved by the Rio Cobre. Yet, standing on the bank, I realised how little I knew about it. Where does the Rio Cobre rise, I wondered. What are its major tributaries? With help from former Managing Director of the Water Resources Authority, Basil Fernandez, I found out.
The Rio Cobre, which supplies between 30 and 40 per cent of the fresh water supplies for Spanish Town and St Catherine, has its origins in the Vale of Lluidas as a small stream known as Murmuring Brook. It rises as a spring from the limestone in the western section of the Vale, flows across it, and sinks north of a bridge over the rocks and sand of the Great Gully. Murmuring Brook then rises at Riverhead, west of Ewarton, in a huge cave, and there it becomes the Black River. The Pedro River flows from west to east underground to join the Black River, which flows easterly to join the Pleasant Farm Gully at Jericho, and there it becomes the Rio Cobre.
Also joining the Black River is the Cotton Piece Gully, which flows west of the bauxite plant and follows the main road. The Old John and Byndlos Gullies drain the area east of the bauxite stacking and drying beds and the effluent holding pond, joining the river near Linstead. It is worth noting that local residents have different names for these watercourses, which they do not regard as ‘gullies’. The Rio Magno/Indian River, flowing from the east, joins further south, and at Bog walk, other rivers converge on the Rio Cobre – the Rio Doro, flowing from the northeast; the Rio Pedro, flowing from the east draining the Benbow inlier in St Mary; and the Thomas River, flowing from the west, draining the Wakefield-Springvale area. Finally, the Rio Cobre travels through the Bog Walk Gorge until it enters Kingston Harbour at Hunts Bay.
COMPLEX FRESHWATER SYSTEM
Put another way, this is an extraordinarily complex freshwater system.
I wanted to see this Murmuring Brook – it sounded like such an insubstantial beginning for the river I knew. So I went, courtesy of Worthy Park Sugar Estate, through which part of Murmuring Brook flows.
We walked along what I later discovered was the Great Gully - sandy, stony, no water. Large stands of bamboo creaked on the banks. Fallen yellow coat plums were fermenting, tempting a perfectly camouflaged Pearly Malachite butterfly.
Soon the Great Gully narrowed, stones became large rocks lightly dusted with moss or algae, until we came upon a small, shallow stream, clear water over brown sand, insects playing on the surface. In another short distance, it was channelled into an old gutter at one side, according to our guide, built in the mid-18th century with public money, to supply water to Worthy Park and the village of Lluidas Vale. When we came to a slightly deeper pool, I took off my boots and rolled up my trousers and sat, my feet in Murmuring Brook, flowing still.
Back at my desk, I started receiving information on the Rio Cobre – that it has been almost completely taken over by invasive species – tilapia, catfish, carp, Australian red claw crayfish, water hyacinths, bamboo. That the drainage area of the entire Hydrologic Basin/Watershed Management Unit with all the tributaries is 1,218 square kilometres, and the Rio Cobre is the only pathway of water out of the Upper Rio Cobre Sub-basin.
That approximately 150,000 people rely on its fresh water for domestic use. That along its entire length, water is either extracted for various human uses or is a recipient of waste from industry and agriculture. That although there is a registration mechanism for fishers in rivers, it is rarely used, and there is no easy avenue to distribute compensation to those who have lost their livelihoods due to regulatory inertia and the despicable actions of a private-sector company.
We did not get to the source of the Rio Cobre on that morning. It was much farther than even our guide realised, but I did get a sense of what small beginnings mean, how an insignificant spring on a predominantly limestone island becomes a major river. We have been using and abusing the Rio Cobre ecosystem without care or understanding for centuries. It is time we found a way to use the gifts of our rivers and groundwater – to use the language of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – our ecological heritage, without destroying it.
Diana McCaulay is an environmental activist and the Founder of the Jamaica Environment Trust. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.