Columns

When are we going to get serious about water?

GARFIELD HIGGINS

Sunday, May 19, 2019

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When the nose is hit, it's the eye that cries. — Tigrayan proverb, Ethiopia

 

Credible meteorologists indicate that the much-anticipated rains to ease the present dry season should arrive near the end of this month and continue well into June. Those showers of blessings cannot come too soon, since there is considerable suffering and inconvenience throughout the country because of water restrictions.

When I was growing up in rural St Mary, the 'May Rains' would come like clockwork. Towards the latter part of October we invariably had rains that often continued long into November. Those were the good old days. Sadly, maybe for the last 25 years, many parts of the country, if not most, are seeing an unwelcome new normal drought. The cost of these droughts to various sectors of the economy, doubtless, is running into several millions.

Water is the universal solvent. While some of us can make do without electricity, if we have to, for maybe a few days, all of us find it excruciatingly difficult to carry out crucial daily functions when we don't have piped water, Rhino Tank or not.

Water is life!

 

Recurring decimal

I recall in 2015 we had a very severe drought. Thousands of Jamaicans had no water in their pipes. Thousands were not able to wash clothes, have a 'proper' shower, and/or perform several necessary domestic chores for days on end. But such droughts in Jamaica are now like recurring decimals.

In February, the Barbados-based Caribbean Climate Outlook Forum (CariCOF) told us that: “[S]ince December last year, many parts of the Caribbean have become drier.” ( Jamaica Observer, February 8, 2019)

We have been warned, and this is not the first time.

Today we are again in the midst of another drought. As Yogi Berra famously said, “It's déjà vu all over again.”

It is full time we free ourselves from many of the preventable and recurrent effects that accompany our dry seasons. Both local and international experts have told us that Jamaica has enough water for all the needs of her citizens. Why, then, are we back to near where we were in 2015 in this the Land of Wood and Water?

Uneven distribution is the culprit, some experts maintain.

In 2014 Basil Fernandez, then managing director of the National Water Resource Authority, said among other things: “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.

“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.

“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?” ( The Gleaner, July 23, 2014)

What has become of that water resources master plan? How far along the way are we with its implementation? Do we really need more studies to tell us what to do? I don't believe so.

 

Wars and water

I remember reading a news story a few years ago in which it was stated that water shortages will become a more significant cause of wars around the world, and could even lead to a third world war. Some might say those things will never happen. They are wrong. Global conflicts occasioned by water shortages are already mushrooming across the world.

Here are some examples from a quick search I did on Google:

• Dispute over water in the Nile Basin

• Water shortages and public discontent in Yemen

• Turkey, Syria and Iraq conflict over the Euphrates-Tigris

• Transboundary water disputes between Afghanistan and Iran

• Dam projects and disputes in the Mekong River Basin

• Dispute over water in the Cauvery Basin in India

 

Water is a finite resource. The United Nations forecast that the world's population will increase from 7.2 billion today to 8.1 billion in 2025, with most growth in developing countries and more than half in Africa. By 2050, it will reach 9.6 billion.

According to data released by UN Water, last week: “Water use has been growing globally at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century.” We have to preserve and conserve the water which we have.

Here in Jamaica, the National Water Commission (NWC) produces more than 90 per cent of Jamaica's total potable water supply from a network of more than 160 underground wells, over 116 river sources (via water treatment plants), and 147 springs. Some of these water sources are going dry.

In the past, we saw the availability of fresh water as unchanging. Much of the literature which I have read says Jamaica has been having dry seasons for 'donkey years', but these were less frequent and the water levels returned to near normal in good time. The ravages of climate change have, however, interrupted that balance.

We need to better protect our water resources. The time for action is quickly slipping away. As a nation, we need to stop pussyfooting and get on with it, as the Brits like to say. If we delay for much longer “dawg gwine nyam wi supper”; in this instance, the impact of drought conditions will destroy all our economic and other gains.

 

Seaga gave the advice

Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga has written extensively on water harvesting. I don't believe we have made sufficient use of his ideas in this crucial area. In one of his many insightful columns, 'Water, water galore! But it's not being properly harvested', he noted that in the late 1980s Joseph Adler, a civil engineer from Israel, and his local professional counterpart, Stanley Rampair, devised a plan to create what was envisioned as the 'South St Catherine Reservoir' — five times bigger than Mona. ( Jamaica Observer, August 5, 2018)

Seaga also said, among other things, in the same article: “While the oxidisation ponds are evident, I am not aware of any effort to use the treated effluent for plant fertilisation to reap the full benefit of the technology. In the same area where the oxidisation ponds exist there are two rivers — Ferry and Duhaney — which could be used to provide potable water.

“Ferry is somewhat saline and would have to be treated to remove the salt content.

“This is not new technology but it is comparatively expensive and unused in Jamaica. It is used in The Bahamas.”

In far too many instances we continue to sit on a veritable treasure trove of shovel-ready projects that can be used to significantly reduce the deleterious impacts of many of our long-standing problems.

“In a crisis,” Seaga said in the same piece “both imagination and perseverance must be called on to make the impossible possible.”

We would do well to adopt more of his approaches as we try to solve our water challenges.

 

Outgrown the 1940s fix

The last major water project in Jamaica aimed at addressing water disequilibrium in the Kingston Metropolitan Area was the Yallahs Pipeline Project. Here is a synopsis of how that project was made into reality.

“On April 21, 1983 the Government of Jamaica, through the Jamaican National Investment Company (JNIC), renamed the National Investment Bank of Jamaica (NIBJ), established Carib Engineering Corporation Limited (CECL). CECL entered into contracts to implement the construction of the Yallahs Pipeline Project. Construction works commenced in September 1983, and the full scheme was commissioned in February 1986. The project was completed within the specified time and CECL received the 1986 Gleaner Honour Award 'for dramatic engineering breakthrough in record time in bringing water from Yallahs, St Thomas, to improve the water supply in the Corporate Area'.” (Rural Water Supply Limited)

The Mona Reservoir was completed in 1947 and the Hermitage Dam (the smaller of the two storage facilities located in our political and commercial capital) was constructed in 1927. Yes, you read correctly, the late 1940s and 1920s. That is before Jamaica gained political independence from Britain. The population of Kingston and Port Royal, according to the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN), was 103,713 in 1943, while St Andrew had 120,067 in 1947. I could not find the population data for Kingston and Port Royal in the 1920s.

In 2018, the population in Kingston and St Andrew was 669,773 (STATIN data). But, guess what? We still have only the Mona and Hermitage water storage facilities to serve a giant increase in the Corporate Area population.

I am not an urban planner, hydrologist or a civil engineer, but it is evident to me that we have been falling down on the job of planning for the ballooning population in Kingston and St Andrew, and in fact the entire Jamaica, for decades.

 

Another good idea: Mona 2

Howard Chin, a member of Jamaica Institution of Engineers, in a very interesting letter to the editor of The Gleaner on May 11, 2019, said: “Some years ago (2014 or 2015) I recommended, as a part of a published plan to increase our water storage, that there exists a wooded area between the Mona Reservoir and College Common Road which could be made into a reservoir, which I called Mona 2. This reservoir would add roughly 250 million imperial gallons to the 809-million-gallon capacity of the Mona Reservoir, or an increase of about a quarter of the capacity. This would not be costly to build because of the four sides of the new reservoir; one side would be Long Mountain, another side would use the existing reservoir's eastern side, and the other two sides would be new. With the Mona Reservoir now at less than 30 per cent of capacity again, drought being declared, and water lock-offs persistent, is this an idea whose time has come?”

This sounds very rational to me, especially given the increasing regularity with which we have been having droughts. I strongly believe we should implement Chin's proposal. It will profit us little to only talk about this and other proposals for another five years while we lose millions in production hours and even many more millions in lost potential investments.

 

Running to waste

In 2017 our Meteorological Service reported that: “In 24 hours, Montego Bay received the volume of rainfall usually seen for one month.” ( The Gleaner, November 23, 2017)

How much of that water did we harvest? An initial $20 million was allocated by our Local Government Minister Desmond McKenzie to assist with clean-up and recovery in Montego Bay, St James, after the flood damage to sections of the western city.

Recall the flood rains in Clarendon, St Thomas, Portland and other parishes in recent years. Doubtless we spent many millions, too, on necessary clean-up and recovery. Cumulatively, these recent floods gave us thousands of millimetres of water. How much did we harvest?

While we add up the costs of rapid response units, water shops, and numerous other drought intervention measures, we need to stop and think long and hard whether we are not being penny wise and pound foolish in some of our approaches to addressing our water problems.

 

Opportunity knocks

Last month, the Minister of Science, Energy and Technology Fayval Williams told us that “the expected $5.5 billion from the current Wigton Windfarm IPO [initial public offering] will be used to help reduce the national debt.

“Williams told the House of Representatives last week that the funds will assist the Government towards meeting the goal of reducing the approximately $2-trillion debt to 60 per cent of GDP by 2025.” ( Jamaica Observer, April 21, 2019)

I have no challenge with this commitment by the Administration. As more fiscal space becomes available as a consequence of the paying down of our debt, far more resources need to be devoted to our water security.

Many of the solutions to our water problems are right in front of us. These include:

1. Better rainwater harvesting — I believe our parish councils should not approve any housing developments that do not include this provision. As a matter of fact, I believe no house plan should be approved in Jamaica unless there are specific provisions for rainwater harvesting and storage;

2. More reservoirs and water treatment plants;

3. Direct potable reuse for irrigation and other industrial purposes — Singapore and Namibia could teach us a lot in this respect;

4. Brackish desalination — I am told we have millions of gallons of brackish water sitting untapped in aquifers;

5. Installing water-saving devices in houses and all buildings;

6. Targeting and managing high, non-revenue water and leaks;

7. Citizen education on all of the above.

 

Reggae legend Jimmy Cliff said: “You can get it if you really want.” I believe we can.

 

Jamaica's best days are ahead. I am betting on Jamaica, full stop!


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