ODPEM backlog triggers alarm
With its critical role of assessing development projects to reduce the likelihood of disasters that can impact the economy and well-being of Jamaicans, the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) was strongly criticised on Wednesday after it was revealed that the agency had a backlog of 280 applications spanning 2013 to 2020.
Chairman of Parliament’s Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), Mikael Phillips, wondered aloud on Wednesday whether some of the nearly 300 projects had been approved and construction completed without the imprimatur of the ODPEM.
“If you are coming from 2013 and we are now in 2021, any person who is putting up money for a development of any size is not going to sit down from 2013 to wait on an approval of an application,” said Phillips.
Further, the PAAC chairman declared: “If you have 280 backlog [applications], and they are projects that are being approved without that disaster risk being done, then you can imagine what we are doing to the environment in many instances.”
He noted that much has been said by the Government about the 90-day turnover of the development application process.
Senior personnel from the ODPEM and technocrats from its parent Ministry of Local Development and Rural Development on Wednesday appeared before the parliamentary oversight committee.
Marsha Henry-Martin, permanent secretary in the local government ministry, indicated that Phillips was right when he commented that some of the projects might have been approved without the risk assessment stamp of the ODPEM.
“Within the regulation the local authority has the authority, if they do not receive it within a specific time to proceed with the application, so you are, in fact, correct,” said Martin in relation to Phillips’ earlier comment.
In a submission by the ODPEM to the PAAC, the agency argued that historical evidence had shown that some approved developments have been affected by natural hazards, including flooding, storm surges, and landslides.
“The role of ODPEM in the development approval process is to ensure that hazard and disaster risk management considerations are included as part of the approval process managed by NEPA (National Environment and Planning Agency),” the submission read.
Emphasising the crucial role played by the ODPEM in the development process, Richard Thompson, acting director general, told the committee that “if the ODPEM sees a situation where we foresee any kind of risk management challenges for the development, then we will provide that information to NEPA and then a decision is made in terms of the approval or the refusal of that application, so we are in fact a part of the application process”.
Henry-Martin told the committee that her ministry had given the ODPEM a three-month ultimatum to clear the backlog.
“They have been properly called to the table and properly written to have the applications cleared because they are, in fact, able to clear the applications within the time they have been asked to do so,” she said.
But Thompson indicated that there was a staff issue in terms of the workload.
“There is no dedicated body for development applications. There is a division that does additional work ... . The development application is additional work to the overall responsibility of the division itself,” he added.
He said the staff complement is three in that department.
The ODPEM reported that it had processed 185 applications to date, with 95 remaining to clear the backlog.