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Water bankruptcy

HIGGINS

Sunday, April 27, 2014    

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Water is life's mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.

DURING THE LAST COUPLE OF WEEKS MANY of us who live in Kingston and St Andrew and a few other parishes have had to be playing 'night watchman' with our piped water.

The water supply has been playing hide and seek, well, more hiding than anything else. Consumers have been forced to apply ingenious conservation strategies and watch and listen for whenever the water is retuned in the wee hours of the morning or sometimes late at night.

Even those, myself included, with the familiar Rhino tank on our rooftops have had to be pinching the precious commodity. These water restrictions, although born out of necessity, are not totally negative. We waste too much water in this country. Of course, the bills have not been reduced by one penny in the absence of water in our pipes for days.

National Water Commission (NWC) spits out the usual verbiage that the Jamaican dollar [now worth less than half of a US cent] is devaluing rapidly [which is true], hence they say something called 'PAM' or 'PAMELLA' keeps jumping out of whack, wishing to catch up with something called an X-Factor value. At least that is how I understand it.

Look at your next NWC bill and you might see what I am taking about. At the end of the day, no amount of protestation to the NWC about exorbitant and unconscionable bills matter. The bill has to be paid. Well, that is if you are not a 'fortunate and favoured' beneficiary of 'social water'.

I found it quite interesting, if not sadly humorous, when I heard some days ago that the Mona Reservoir had 40 per cent of its storage capacity and the Hermitage Dam had 29 per cent. Until the rains came a few days ago -- well, a little rain in parts of Kingston and St Andrew -- I was beginning to worry that we would soon be out of water in the city and other parts of Jamaica.

We might still be out of water in days to come, since the latest information coming out of the NWC is that the Mona Reservoir now has 29 per cent and the Hermitage Dam 21 per cent of storage capacities. Appreciable rains, we have been told, will not bless us until about the middle of May.

The Mona Reservoir was built in the 1940s and the Hermitage Dam [the smaller of the two storage facilities] in the 1920s. YES! You read correctly, the 1940s and 1920s. That is before Jamaica gained Independence from Great Britain. How many years ago did Jamaica build the last significant water reservoir or dam for mass storage? You can do the math, as the Americans say.

The population of Kingston and Port Royal, according to the Statistical Institute of Jamaica, was 103,713 in 1943, while St Andrew had 120,067 for the same year. Data for the 1920s were not available from the Statistical Institute of Jamaica.

Now, fast-forward to 2014 -- the population is estimated to be just a shade below 760,000 persons in Kingston and St Andrew.

But guess what; we still have only the Mona and Hermitage water storage facilities to serve a more than 150 per cent increase in the Corporate Area population. While I am not an urban planner, hydrologist or a civil engineer, it seems to me that we have fallen down on the job of planning for the ballooning population in Kingston and St Andrew, and in fact the entire Jamaica.

After amassing nearly US$2,000 billion in debt one is forced to ask the questions, where has all that money gone? What do we really have to show for this millstone of debt around our necks? For starters, we have not built a dam.

Taking water into Kingston and St Andrew, via the Yallahs, St Thomas pipeline and from Tulloch Spring in St Catherine cannot be the final answer to this jeopardy. Now there is much talk by the NWC of using underground sources to augment inflows into our two major storage facilities. Some of these underground water sources are heavily polluted, as is well known.

We need another significant water storage facility for the Corporate Area. But, as I said, I am not an expert on these matters.

But there is a greater problem of water shortage outside of the realities of Jamaica -- the land of wood and water. There is apparently a severe shortage of water in the world. Some experts are even predicting that the next great wars will be fought over water, not oil.

It sounds fantastic, does it not? Some experts predict that the world is facing what Geoffrey Lean -- an environmental writer -- calls 'water bankruptcy'. It is predicted that by 2030 the full effects of this impending 'water bankruptcy' will be felt in increasing intensity around the globe.

The 2010 World Water Development Report, compiled by 24 UN agencies under the auspices of UNESCO, adds that "water shortages are already beginning to constrain economic growth in areas as diverse as California, China, Australia, India

and Indonesia".

The report further notes that: "Water use has been growing far faster than the number of people. During the 20th century the world population increased fourfold, but the amount of freshwater that it used increased nine times over.

"Already, 2.8 billion people live in areas of high water stress and this will rise to 3.9 billion -- more than half the expected population of the world -- by 2030. By that time, water scarcity could cut world harvests by 30 per cent -- equivalent to all the grain grown in the US and India -- even as human numbers and appetites increase.

"Some 60 per cent of China's 669 cities are already short of water. The huge Yellow River is now left with only 10 per cent of its natural flow, sometimes failing to reach the sea altogether. And the glaciers of the Himalayas, which act as gigantic water banks supplying two billion people in Asia, are melting ever faster as global warming accelerates. Meanwhile, devastating droughts are crippling many parts of the world."

The report warns further that water conflicts could break out in the Middle East, Haiti, Sri Lanka, Colombia and other countries and that, "Conflicts about water can occur at all scales. 'Hydrological shocks' brought about by climate change are likely to "increase the risk of major national and international security threats".

But just what is water scarcity?

A 2012 UNDP report entitled 'Coping with water and scarcity - Challenges of the Twenty-first Century', defines the term water scarcity and related terms this way:

"Simply put, water scarcity is either the lack of enough water (quantity) or lack of access to safe water (quality). It's hard for most of us to imagine that clean, safe water is not something that can be taken for granted. But, in the developing world, finding a reliable source of safe water is oftentimes consuming and expensive. This is known as economic scarcity. Water can be found... it simply requires more resources to do it.

"In other areas, the lack of water is a more profound problem. There simply isn't enough. That is known as physical scarcity. The problem of water scarcity is a growing one. As more people put ever increasing demands on limited supplies, the cost and effort to build or even maintain access to water will increase. And water's importance to political and social stability will only grow with the crisis."

Conservative figures from various credible reports show that some 1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world's population, live in areas of physical scarcity, and 500 million people are approaching this situation. Another 1.6 billion people, or almost one quarter of the world's population, face economic water shortage, where countries lack the necessary infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers.

If you think Jamaica will not be affected, you are mistaken. Remember, we live in a global village, and what happens elsewhere in most parts of the world will impact us in Jamaica. The map shows how serious an issue the challenge of water scarcity is matching up to be.

We in Jamaican must do our part. We need to stop the deforestation and slash-and-burn farming which contribute to soil erosion, damage to watersheds and reduced rainfall. Our local population is expected to exceed 3.5 million by 2025. The demands for water will be even greater then. Droughts are phenomena for which we can prepare.

It should be the law that no one can build a house in Jamaica without a tank. We need to prepare.

"All are places where shortages of water contribute to poverty. They cause social hardship and impede development. They create tensions in conflict-prone regions. Too often, where we need water we find guns. [...] There is still enough water for all of us, but only so long as we keep it clean, use it more wisely, and share it fairly."

-- Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary general

Garfield Higgins is an educator and journalist. Comments to higgins160@yahoo.com

-- Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

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