Wed | Oct 4, 2023

Water shortage at unprecedented levels

Published:Wednesday | April 14, 2010 | 12:00 AM

David Jessop, Trade Writer

It is evident that across the globe, nations are experiencing increasingly, extreme weather conditions.

In the Caribbean, this is now taking the form of a prolonged drought, not just in traditionally hard-hit rural areas but in the region's towns and cities where there are severe water shortages.

Caribbean officials link the prolonged drought to the weather phenomenon, El Niño, to climate change, and to a poorly maintained and funded water distribution network, with the further consequence that dam and reservoir levels are down by record levels as rivers dry up.

Across the region, the story is the same.

Water levels in Jamaica's two main reservoirs are down to 50 per cent of their normal levels.

The National Water Commission has warned that it can no longer guarantee water in parts of Kingston and would limit availability to a few hours each day.

Agriculture has been hit particularly badly. "Crops are wilting. Farmers who want to plant vegetables cannot do so unless their farm is located in proximity to swampy areas, or at least, be able to purchase water," President of the Jamaica Agricultural Society, Glendon Harris, is reported to have said.

Barbados recently activated a drought management plan and has made clear that restrictions could be enforced if the situation deteriorates.

However, the Barbados Water Authority (BWA) believes that for the time being, voluntary conservation will go a long way towards avoiding dislocations and water outages, should conditions worsen.

For its part, the Caribbean Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology has issued drought alerts for the whole of the south-eastern Caribbean, and advised national governments and water authorities to activate drought management plans.

The Antigua Public Utilities Authority is warning that only a few weeks of supply remains in its main dams in the absence of any significant rainfall.

In Trinidad, the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) has reported that reservoir levels are dropping to an unprecedented level.

"The country is now running on just about one third of its water supplies' WASA said, and there are now real fears that the country's water supply will run out before June, as levels in dams and reservoirs, traditionally around 80 per cent at this time of year, are closer to 40 per cent, with the last significant rainfall in May 2009.

The drought is also affecting the Petrotrin's refinery operations.

Guyana estimates that drought-related losses in its agriculture sector could reach US$14.7 million. The government has also spent large sums on improving irrigation and pumping water into farmlands.

"We have close to 10,000 acres of rice land under stress; we have cattle, too, going through some very difficult conditions; we have some crops under pressure in the hinterland areas," Agriculture Minister Robert Persaud said in February.

The impact on sugar cane cultivation has been particularly severe.

"After we missed the seasonal November/December rains," said Guysuco officials, "it was established with a high degree of certainty that the industry would be experiencing an acute water shortage."

The drought is also affecting mining operations in Guyana's interior. With companies unable to transport fuel, miners or supplies by river, they are being forced to either cut production or use more costly modes of transport.

Dominica, too, despite its high rainfall and many rivers, has warned consumers that the drought could get worse and there is the possibility that there will not be sufficient pressure to provide water to many communities.

It also seems in parallel that there have been discussions about supplying up to two million gallons of water per week to hotels in St Lucia, but this has been denied by the Dominica Water and Sewerage Company to local media.

Shortages and problems have also been reported in the Hispanic Caribbean and the situation has not been helped by bush fires in Trinidad, St Lucia and Grenada, which have required significant quantities to extinguish.

Even in nations like St Kitts where average rainfall in the first three months exceeded the previous year, there is concern because the general forecast is that the dry season will be drier than normal.

Despite this, a regionwide initiative failed to materialise when Caribbean Heads of Government met in March.

Then, heads confined themselves to assessing the implications of the drought and resultant water shortages, preferring to wait and ask CARICOM ministers responsible for water to formalise a "wide range of immediate, short, medium and long term measures on sustainable water management" for submission to heads of government in July.

One less considered consequence of the drought that some experts have begun to consider relates to its effect on hurricanes.

They suggest that the absence of rain means that water temperatures have increased, carrying with it the dangers that if 2010 is a particularly active season, then hurricane intensity could increase dramatically.

Whether all of this is simply a reflection long-term cyclical movements in weather patterns, increased solar radiation or human activity is irrelevant.

The region is facing yet another crisis. It is one that is every bit as significant as those that remain unresolved relating to high oil and food prices or the global economic downturn.

The water shortage requires a regional consensus and a well considered response strategy.

Guyana estimates that drought-related losses in its agriculture sector could reach US$14.7 million.

Worst drought on record

The Caribbean is battling a record drought that has shut down schools and courtrooms and sparked bush fires and a prison protest.

Countries, including Guyana, Grenada, St Lucia and Barbados report the lowest rainfall totals from October to March since records were kept, said Adrian Trotman of the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology.

The drought that started in October, normally the region's wettest month, is expected to continue at least until May.

"In some parts of the region, it's probably the worst drought ever on record," Trotman said Thursday. "Some things are really starting to go roller-coaster down."

St Lucia declared a water emergency after main reservoir levels dropped more than 20 feet (6 metres), closing two schools and some courtrooms because of dry taps, said John Joseph, general manager of the state-owned Water and Sewerage Company.

In Guyana, a grass-roots women's organisation staged a protest and fund-raiser for a water truck, while the Central Islamic Organisation of Guyana organised its first-ever prayer for rain.

Impoverished Amerindian communities in the mountains have it worse, said Regional Chairman Senor Bell.

"There's no way we can pump water from below to the mountain," Bell said. "The villagers will have to move and go to sites on the big rivers. They can't survive on the big mountains in the near future. They can't."

- AP