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Let us pray ...for rain

Sunday, July 27, 2014    

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THE God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, as portrayed in the Bible, is one who is concerned with the providential care of his people, which includes the forces of nature and history for the well-being of his people. Indeed, for those unfamiliar with this notion, Psalm 104 may be considered a song of praise to the God of creation capturing every facet of God's involvement in the life of the created order through the seasons and, most specifically for our purpose, the provision of the rains for the sustenance of the creation. So, from the story of creation in the Book of Genesis, through the wanderings of the children of Israel through the desert, water has been a major concern for people and a matter of major concern in their relationship with God.

Later in the book of 1 Kings 18 we see the children of Israel facing a devastating drought and the prophet Elijah praying on behalf of the people for rain; a prayer which is subsequently answered. But water holds such a special place in the relationship of God with his people that He has crowned this basic element of creation and life to be the symbol and vehicle of grace and blessing through the sacrament of Baptism.

So, when in this moment of national crisis with a drought that is projected to be protracted and most severe, prayers for rain offered voluntarily by the faithful, or as requested by the authorities and population of a concerned nation, is most certainly an appropriate activity in giving expression to our relationship with God. I believe that it is true to say that this is indisputable for the person of faith.

On the other hand, the person of faith must also recognise that, if he or she takes seriously the very foundation of the relationship between God and the created order contained in Scripture, he/she of necessity must consider the inherent call to human responsibility for the handling of creation and the environment, including this commodity called water. It is a means by which we give expression to our stewardship of creation and the environment. My own religious tradition states it as an imperative for Christian mission - to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and to sustain and renew the life of the earth. We know from experience that once the language of the preservation of creation and the environment comes up, there is an element within society which begins to think of people who only want to stop progress, development and the creation of jobs. However, this is a concern which is embedded in the Christian faith and which is now coming to the fore in the form of the present drought.

So, irresponsibility and a lack of proper stewardship, and its natural consequences, cannot become the basis for a seeming manipulation of the people of faith and of their God in whom they believe. One of the failures of repeated governments since Independence has been the failure to be responsible in the handling of the water resources of this country and in the development of a comprehensive plan for its management, consistent with expected population growth and demographic changes. Using urban Kingston and St Andrew as an example, we can note that there has been no noticeable increase in storage capacity from the 1950s, although there has been some investment in creating some new sources of inflows. This latter has borne no relationship to the increase in the population of these urban areas over the decades. The reality is that the rains do come, and watercourses flow, but we allow the commodity to flow untapped into the sea.

The citizens of the urban centres and across the island have not been without complicity. We have failed as those who govern and those who are governed to learn from what happens in other parts of our Caribbean, in which water storage is part of the development plans which private and commercial developers must present to the authorities before building plans can be approved. Thankfully, the plastic tanks have entered into the situation, but there is still no policy on the matter, and it is still up to the discretion of the individual citizen and his or her ability to afford the same.

It is no secret that this country has two main seasons, rainy and dry, and that this has serious impact on the supply of potable water for the population, and water for agricultural purposes and productivity. There is, therefore, need for serious planning in order to harvest and store water for dry spells. Much of the development of water supply schemes has come about because of protest and street demonstrations. In the absence of statistical data, I would proffer the notion that even more frequent than demonstrations about bad road conditions, have been the demonstrations regarding the lack of water and the unavailability of that commodity in a systematic way.

Not only has there been and continues to be a failure on the part of repeated governments to deal in a strategic and effective way with the provision of this commodity, but the agency charged with the management of the supply of the potable commodity has been inefficient, wasteful, and an instrument and vehicle of political patronage. Recent releases regarding the financial viability of the National Water Commission (NWC) indicate that it is financially bankrupt - the outcome of years of mismanagement, a lack of maintenance of its distribution network with a resultant loss of much of the processed commodity, an unresponsive workforce that allows millions of gallons of water to go to waste before responding to reports of leaks by citizens. Just as fundamental to the lack of viability by the NWC is the amount of free water being offered to various communities as part of their payback for political support, all leading to an unsustainable situation. In addition, there is a poor customer service relationship with the public which, from personal and ongoing experience, indicates that complaints are not investigated, but customers are being strung along on the principle of "carry the fool a little further" by promising to investigate complaints, even where there is a violation of the law by the Commission, and their continued insistence for protracted periods of time that contested amounts be paid in full. More than likely, this is in the hope that the frustrated customer will drop the issue.

The Jamaica Public Service Company under the leadership of Ms Kelly Tomblin has taken the kind of bold, necessary, and painful step, of demonstrating what it takes to run a viable utility company and how to get political leaders to identify and determine the limits of their patronage and at whose expense. What Tomblin has done is to administer the medicine necessary to save the patient's life. What our political leaders need to learn is that, where the patient's life is at risk, action needs to be taken. Do we still need an external voice to let us take the action we know is unavoidable?

Every school child now knows about the El Nino effect on the weather pattern affecting this country, except that the government planners in the area of water management are yet to discover what this means for us and how we plan and prepare ourselves to deal with that reality. So the authorities scramble like the rest of us to deal with what is now a crisis of major proportion with the potential for serious consequences for our nation. So, we are yet to face the fact that the timing of this severe drought, with an impending potential outbreak of the Chikungunya virus (CHIK-V), could be devastating, as so much of domestic activities will now be taking place without adequate water supply or no water at all. Other serious health challenges will arise as not just households, but the countless persons and centres involved in food preparation and the conduct of business where there is little or no potable water will pose problems for the health of customers. What other health threats await us one can only guess.

Not to be underestimated is the impact of this crisis on industry and commerce. How, for example, does the construction industry continue its work when there is no water to mix the mortar? And how will the hotels function with limited water supply in servicing the needs of guests in a way that meets their expectations in terms of hygiene in an ambience and environment which is inviting? Not to mention the consequences for the jobs of the large labour force of gardeners and small farmers.

It is clear that the present situation with regards to the management of the NWC is unsustainable and we are heading down a path similar to that of Air Jamaica, which had all of the opportunities for conducting a viable operation, but chose instead to pursue a path leading to its ultimate demise. If the Government continues along the current path in dealing with the operations of the NWC then the privatisation of water will become a reality sooner than later. At that point the political forces which promote the current approach to water management, will come to realise, and perhaps acknowledge, that we have been led down a path of short-sightedness and deception, and not that of benevolence and patronage as envisaged.

At the same time, the devout and the religious community which is being called upon to pray, out of personal initiative or a sense of national responsibility, must ensure that their prayers are not of the nature of asking God to support our national enterprise of irresponsibility and a lack of planning, but that this moment be a time of confession of failure, and a prayer for discernment in making a responsible response as leaders and people of this nation in our stewardship of the abundant water resources with which our God has endowed us.

- Howard Gregory is the Lord Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

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