Editorial

Water shortage in Jamaica is a man-made disaster, not an act of God

Wednesday, July 23, 2014    

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THERE is no doubt that the small island developing states of the Caribbean are vulnerable to natural disasters, both in regard to their frequency and severity, in particular hurricanes. Disaster preparedness is therefore an important mitigating factor.

Some climates, such as Jamaica's, have a seasonal pattern of rainfall. We have two rainy seasons and in between there are dry periods. If these dry periods are longer than usual they are described as droughts. In a small land mass like Jamaica a drought affects the entire area of land. Therefore these annual droughts result in annual shortages of water throughout the country with the attendant water restrictions, lock-offs and unavailability of potable water.

The pattern of rainfall in Jamaica in the last 30 years involves a dry season each year. Since this pattern is known and predictable, unlike hurricanes which are less predictable, it is certainly possible to plan for mitigation. The problem in Jamaica is that the lack of a water policy and/or its implementation has converted a natural annually occurring weather event into a disaster. This qualifies as a man-made disaster!

There should be no water shortage in Jamaica because there is enough rainfall and groundwater to serve the needs of the country well into the future, if there is proper management. There is no effective policy of collection, storage and distribution of water. There are 10 hydrological basins in Jamaica, none of which is optimally managed. The result of all of this is that even without a drought, one in four Jamaicans does not have access to piped water but rely on standpipes. Most of these persons are among the poorest 20 per cent of the population.

We insist that Jamaica's perennial water shortage is a man-made disaster because of the lack of an implemented policy of preservation of watersheds, eg the vast riverbed of the former Hope River, inadequate provisions for catchment of rainfall and hopelessly inadequate storage facilities. Ancient and decrepit water infrastructure results in more than half the water being lost due to leaking pipes.

As is now clear, there has been no systematic plan for the catchment and storage of rainfall. No new reservoir has been built to supply the Greater Kingston area during the last 60 years. The Hermitage Dam was completed in 1927, but maintaining its storage capacity of 400 million gallons is a struggle against the accumulation of silt. The Mona Reservoir to be fed by the Hope River was completed in 1947 and, after several repairs for leaks, was brought into service in 1959.

Droughts are acts of God but water shortages are acts of man and the failure to act. Governments over the last 50 years are guilty of negligence; the National Water Commission's incompetence is beyond dispute and we the people of Jamaica are also responsible because we have been complacent and have tolerated the failure of successive governments.

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