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Untapped Potential - Jamaica has adequate water but lacks proper systems, says expert

Published:Wednesday | July 23, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Basil Fernandez, managing director of the Water Resources Authority.
The Rio Cobre in the vicinity of the dam by Crescent outside Spanish Town, St Catherine. - File Photos
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Jamaica has adequate resources to consistently meet its water demand; however, the lack of a comprehensive plan and implementation structure have caused the country to be facing serious recurring water problems such as the current drought crisis. So says Basil Fernandez, managing director of the Water Resources Authority.

"We have done a water resources master plan that looks at the demands across the island and where are the resources. And our plan indicates that there are adequate resources to meet the demand; however, the development of those resources and implementation of the solutions is the issue," Fernandez told The Gleaner yesterday.

"We can solve our water problem and put an end to this recurring problem, but it will take a comprehensive, multi-tier approach. There is no single solution that is going to cause any significant change. It has to be a systematic programme."

The critical combination of factors Fernandez outlined includes creating and implementing a water resources master plan; an islandwide road map for a water-supply system; harnessing high resources on the north coast to supply high demand on the south coast; water-saving devices for houses and all buildings; balanced rainwater harvesting; targeting and managing high non-revenue water; geotechnical investigation of damming of Bog Walk gorge in St Catherine; using treated effluent to irrigate crops; and drawing on expertise from wherever available.

HIGH DEMAND ON SOUTH COAST

"In its water resources master plan, the Water Resources Authority has identified exactly where there are water resources that are available for development. We have divided the island into 10 hydrologic basins, and we have done an evaluation of the water resources availability in those basins across the island," Fernandez noted.

He added: "We saw where there was a shortage and where there was a surplus. What is happening is that the high-demand areas are primarily on the south coast of the island, where you have all these large irrigable land, big estates, bauxite companies, and major urban centres. While on the north coast, you have more rainfall and water resources with high-flowing rivers with less demand."

Fernandez said Jamaica has a water problem because the authorities have not kept pace with growing urbanisation in certain areas, failing to put in place adequate infrastructure to meet the increasing demand.

"Basically, what we now have is a very high demand but less resources on the south coast, while a low demand but high resources on the north coast. In order to meet the shortage of systems, we have to look at how to get the surplus water to the areas with the greater demand. In other words, how are we going to get those resources across the island?"

He asked: "Can we put a system in place to harness a lot of that water along the north coast and bring it across the central mountain range to meet the demand on the south coast? It is going to take some money, design, and engineering, and with the present high energy cost, that might be the biggest deterrent. But if we can get cheaper energy or use an alternative energy source, this will go a long way in solving our water problem."

Fernandez said before anything could be done, a road map for the water supply system for the entire island needs to be done as a guide to properly evaluating the system and knowing how to proceed.

Rainwater harvesting, he said, was another solution; however, it has to be a balanced approach and must only be looked at to augment the supply from the National Water Commission.

"Remember that rainwater is the only source of water in the island. We have no other water source. When it rains, 50 per cent of that water goes into the atmosphere and the other 50 per cent goes into supplying our rivers and recharging our groundwater. If we begin to capture a lot of rainwater and harvest it, then there will be implications for our river flows and groundwater systems. So there has to be a balance, especially in light of predictions for a reduction of rainfall," Fernandez said.

He added that individual houses and buildings could be retrofitted to aid in rainwater harvesting for personal use. He also advised that new houses and buildings being built should have with water-saving devices and that they should also be installed in existing structures.

"We have to begin to take the conservation seriously, right across the board, not just householders. And we have to do it consistently - not just when we are faced with a drought," said Fernandez.

"We have a tendency to come up with ideas and plans when we are in a crisis, but as soon as that crisis passes, we shelve everything until the next crisis hits us."

Noting that a recent evaluation done by the Caribbean Development Bank indicated that Jamaica has probably the highest non-revenue water in the entire Caribbean, he said it was critical that the authorities seriously target the non-revenue water areas, which includes leaks, wastage, theft, undermetering, and no metering, among other things.

"We have to also access the infrastructure and identify the leakages and weak areas that need replacing or repairing," he said.

DESALINATION EXPENSIVE

On the subject of desalination, Fernandez said while it would be good, it was also an expensive process requiring high-energy use to operate.

"Other countries can do it because their energy cost isn't as high as Jamaica's," he said.

On the issue of the damming of the Bog Walk gorge, he said the agency conducted an assessment and the findings deemed it unfeasible; however, with China Harbour Engineering Company putting together a proposal, he would await the findings from their geotechnical investigation and the assessments of the flows, which would determine a decision.

"The fact is a lot of people are saying we need to do this and we need to do that, but they are not considering the many factors that impact carrying out those processes. It is not just having water. It is a matter of infrastructure, energy, practicality, feasibility, affordability, environmental impact, solving one problem but creating another, can you recuperate from that investment, and so on," noted Fernandez.

"There are many facets to look at to meet the demand. There is no magic wand that is going to give us water tomorrow."

He added: "Right now, to me, the earliest possible source of water that we can get into Kingston is to probably take water from the Rio Cobre River behind the dam; however, we have to be sure that when you take that water, the agricultural sector is not affected.

"But we do have a resource that we are not using in the agriculture sector. What happens to the treated effluent out of the sewage plants? That is something that is done all over the world. It is a resource, and we are making it go to waste. It can be used to irrigate crops, but instead, we dump it into the river and it goes out to sea. We don't need high-quality water to irrigate crops. Treated effluent water can be used."

Fernandez said: "We have to move to integrated water resources management strategies - a road map, a comprehensive plan, an intensive investigation - in order to know the strengths and weaknesses, and asses it as you go along, and so on. These are things we have to look at to reduce the water demand, and if we don't, we will continue to have these problems and things will only get worse.

"There are things we can do in both the short term and the long term, but it requires planning and a comprehensive approach, but solutions are possible."

anastasia.cunningham@gleanerjm.com

Suggested solutions:

Create and implement water resources master plan.

Create islandwide road map for water-supply system.

Water-saving devices for houses and all buildings.

Balanced rainwater harvesting.

Geotechnical investigation of damming of Bog Walk gorge, St Catherine.

Use treated effluent to irrigate crops.

Harness high resources on north coast to supply high demand on south coast.

Target and manage high non-revenue water.

Draw on expertise from wherever available.