– Incomplete Palisadoes project leaves capital still vulnerable to devastating hurricanes, scientists say – Joggers, motorists stifle young mangroves with garbage
The huge boulders on the sides of the Palisadoes main road leading to the Norman Manley International Airport (NMIA) are supposed to be covered over with sand and storm-repelling mangroves planted on either side to fortify Kingston’s primary...
The huge boulders on the sides of the Palisadoes main road leading to the Norman Manley International Airport (NMIA) are supposed to be covered over with sand and storm-repelling mangroves planted on either side to fortify Kingston’s primary defence from sure catastrophe to businesses and homes in the event of a major hurricane.
But more than a decade after the commencement of the US multimillion-dollar Palisadoes Shoreline and Road Project, the stones lay naked with fundamental parts of the harbour’s bulwark, its mangroves, depleted and depleting. Still, there has been no deposition of sand, and what little mangroves remain are clinging hopelessly to life.
This, while the Andrew Holness-led Government invests $950 million on the secondary Port Royal Street Coastal Project which engineers last week argued is of less importance than the Palisadoes strip, which directly protects more crucial infrastructure.
According to the National Works Agency (NWA), however, there are no plans to complete the dredging and sand deposition along the spit any time soon, thus retarding mangrove replenishment, a worry for scientists who feel the authorities are playing ‘Jeopardy’ with the nation’s economic hub.
“It is like locking your bathroom door but yet you leave your front door wide open,” posited engineer and climate scientist Christopher Burgess, managing director of the Civil, Environment, and Coastal (CEAC) Solutions, a Jamaica-based engineering company that has worked on both harbour projects.
Currently, Burgess said, downtown’s revitalisation dream, the NMIA airport, and hundreds of businesses and communities on the Kingston waterfront are all under threat of serious coastal flooding if urgent attention is not paid to the Palisadoes spit.
And he is not alone.
Dr Mona Webber, professor of marine biology at The University of the West Indies (UWI), is also swivelling the spotlight on the area as sea-level rise and an unpredictable hurricane season make the Kingston waterfront particularly vulnerable. The emphasis is being placed on “hard engineering” and not enough on mixed solutions that include the replanting of natural vegetation, she said.
“We have tremendous engineering work on that 15-kilometre strip, especially the narrower parts, where we have had breaches in the past. The engineers sought to remove the existing vegetation and to put in rocks, what we call hard-engineering structures, [but] the technology now requires us to look at hybrid solutions, where you have green mixed with this so-called grey infrastructure,” said the professor, noting that the NWA was mandated to replant mangrove destroyed during the project.
“We have not adequately replaced the vegetation, especially on the open sea side, where those huge white boulders are. That complete design should have had a layer of sand. They were going to dredge sand and then plant back the natural vegetation on that sand. So it, essentially, is incomplete,” stressed Webber, who leads a UWI team, along with the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), in a hard-fought battle of replanting some of the mangroves.
No sand on the side facing the Caribbean Sea means no mangroves; and on the harbour side, litter from joggers and other passers-by are choking those that have been planted by the team. Mangroves not only cut heavy wind and waves destined inland during hurricanes, but also hold together naturally formed sand dunes, like the one directly opposite Gunboat Beach.
“The natural dunes have withstood those extreme 100-year storm events, but with climate change and once you have sea-level rise, we have a new baseline; it’s now higher, which will only result in increased storm activities,” said Webber.
“We needed to have done more to complete the design to make it (Palisadoes strip) more effective by simulating the natural dunes. As it is, it has never really been properly tested,” she argued, adding that more than 50 per cent of the mangroves along the road has been destroyed – “so much so that what is there is in patches”.
Global warning threat
In 2019, some $5 million was budgeted for the replanting and monitoring of the mangroves along Palisadoes. Then, the Government said it would help fortify the Palisadoes investment. But while Webber and her team fight to replant and nurse depleted mangroves, as they warn of impending doom, NWA Communication Manager Stephen Shaw believes the clamour, for the most part, is unwarranted.
“The project was predicated on a system that could withstand a one-in-100-year return hurricane. Those were the design parameters based on what information was available at that time. We have gone about a decade with that project,” said Shaw, noting that global warming and sea-level rise would have been accounted for in initial planning.
The plan to dredge and redeposit sand to the sides of the spit, he said, is costly, and thus has fallen into dark waters. It would require heavy equipment, technical expertise, “and is something that Government would have to decide on, but I don’t know of any plans at this time about that aspect of the work”, he told The Sunday Gleaner.
Initially, the Government had set aside J$50.4 million for the entire revegetation of both sides of the Palisadoes spit. This included monitoring and replacement of the plants over five years. But once the sand dune project was shelved, that figure was revised to $28.5 million, said Webber.
Of that amount, $17.3 million went to the National Solid Waste Management Authority for barrier erection and cleaning, while the rest went to The University of the West Indies. In total, the university received roughly $15 million for their part, following up with an additional $4 million for its continued services.
Last Thursday, the US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in its first 2021 hurricane season outlet, predicted another “above-normal” Atlantic hurricane season.
According to the NOAA, there is a likely range of 13 to 20 named storms, with winds of 39 mph or higher, and of these, six to 10 could become hurricanes, with winds of 111mph or higher. These also include three to five major hurricanes, ranked categories Three, Four, and Five. The NOAA states these ranges with 70 per cent confidence.
Webber argued that a system the size of Hurricane Ivan, which affected the island in 2004, could have devastating effects on the capital city. On September 11, Ivan passed 30km south of Clarendon; it was then the ninth tropical cyclone of the hurricane season, and after developing to Category Four, left more than a dozen Jamaicans dead and 12,000 dislocated. Similarly, last October, infrastructural and flood damage sustained during extensive rainfall from two tropical systems cost the country more than $2 billion in repairs and terminated vehicular access to communities in Gordon Town, St Andrew.
In an article obtained by the newspaper, CEAC Solutions boss Burgess argued that those numbers are minimal to the damage Kingston’s infrastructure would sustain from massive coastal flooding. In the piece titled ‘Optics versus opportunities’, Burgess juxtaposes public uproar over the clearing of mangroves for hotel construction in Hanover against what he described as a more serious threat to the capital city and Jamaica’s economy.
“Unlike the mangroves in Hanover, the mangroves and sand dunes of the Palisadoes actually protect more people and are more valuable assets against larger and more costly threats. A 2019 Airports Authority of Jamaica study of Kingston and St Andrew coastlines estimated US$1.8 billion in losses from storm surge and erosion if the Palisadoes are overwashed and breached,” he argued.
“The Palisadoes spit is a Protected Area (1998) and a Ramsar Convention Site (2005), denoting it as a wetland of international importance. Unfortunately, as hurricanes Dean and Ivan demonstrated, the dunes already have several blowouts that represent points of weakness. The mangroves on the harbour side of the spit, which also offer protection, are also under stress,” he posited, noting that the Government should move with more alacrity to secure funding for the project.
“For nearly two years, Jamaica has failed to initiate US$50 million in grant and debt funding from the Green Climate Fund (GCF) for the rehabilitation of Palisadoes dunes and mangroves. GCF is a UN body dedicated to enabling developing countries to meet Nationally Determined Contribution goals through mitigation and adaptation actions. These funds would be aimed at raising the existing Port Royal road to better cope with sea-level rise, strengthening, rehabilitating, and replanting the dunes, and putting in revetments to reduce Kingston’s vulnerability. The proposed measures would reduce by half Kingston’s current annualised risk of US$12 million to about US$6 million.”
Meanwhile, stronger winds and hurricanes are not the effects Kingston, like other urban areas, will suffer due to global warming, explained Professor Michael Taylor, dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology and coordinator of climate change studies at The UWI.
“Probably the effect that we feel most now is the stronger warming, and part of the problem is that we normally associate it with August or July or one and two hot days. Now we are getting these very hot days creeping in before the summer months,” noted Taylor.
“A number of downtown Kingston communities are really densely packed with a lot of substandard housing and zinc roofs that under climate change and the impact of temperatures becomes almost oppressive. So think about that, along with COVID-19 and restrictions on movement,” he continued.
“Normally, people can escape that during the day or in the night by going outside and trying to be cool, but when you restrict people – their movements restricted – the human factor of it becomes an element,” he noted, adding also that with surging heat comes an increased need for cooling, which, in turn, drives up energy costs.