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Tackling our water woes on all fronts

Charles Jr

Sunday, December 01, 2019

In the November 10 edition of the Jamaica Observer, I outlined my vision for the transformation of the water sector as one that will make use of affordable, sustainable and renewable technology.

This is in keeping with our recently tabled National Water Sector Policy and Implementation Plan 2019 to “adopt economically viable, energy-efficient and renewable technologies” in order to withstand shocks in our water sector. The article explored desalination as a component of the solution to meeting the shortfall in water demand, especially during the dry period.

Many are cautious, citing high costs associated with traditional desalination plants, as well as environmental concerns about the by-products of their operation. However, advancements in technology and recent case studies demonstrate the increased feasibility of desalination as an option worth exploring.

For example, earlier this year, Kingunga, an area of Kenya which suffers extreme drought, benefited from the construction of a solar water farm that turns salt water into clean drinking water, in a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way, for approximately 35,000 people.

In our region, Grenada has also moved to build two solar-powered reverse-osmosis desalination plants to alleviate low water supply in the dry season on Carriacou and Petite Martinique residents within these areas are otherwise dependent on rainwater harvesting. In addition to that, many dry and semi-arid regions of the world such as Australia, Dubai and Saudi Arabia have been increasingly looking towards solar-powered desalination as a sustainable solution to water supply challenges.

Research also suggests that the desalination process is not only applicable to seawater. This means that a desalination plant may be useful in converting salt water from the Ferry springs to freshwater, which would add approximately 4.2 million imperial gallons per day (migd) to the water supply system for delivery into Kingston, an option now being explored.

Though we recognise that Jamaica has an abundance of freshwater resources, the use of technological tools and innovative approaches to improve the availability, accessibility, and sustainability of water is an important part of advancing the water sector and building resilience to climate change. Seawater desalination is no longer a far-fetched and far-reaching option, especially if there is vested interest by investors and innovators to demonstrate the benefits, viability and sustainability of the option in the context of Jamaica's water sector.


What's in the

pipeline right now?

There are several projects and plans under way to improve our water sector, such as the expansion of the Non-Revenue Water Reduction Programme (NRW) through leak detection and meter upgrades, the repair and upgrade of transmission systems, the construction of water treatment plants, well rehabilitation, and an increased focus on rural water supply through the rehabilitation of catchments tanks, minor water supply systems and the introduction of rainwater harvesting in schools and communities.

The National Water Commission (NWC) has reported that the NRW programme has resulted in over 1,000 leaks being fixed on a monthly basis and a reduction in the amount of water loss in Kingston and St Andrew (KSA) from 63 per cent to 36 per cent between 2015 and 2019. The programme is continuously improving our ability to adequately distribute water to KSA. We are moving to expand the programme into Portmore and eventually across the entire island.

The Rio Cobre/Content water treatment plant, which is in its final negotiation stages, is another mentionable project which, once completed, will add 15 million gallons per day (mgd) to the Corporate Area system. The project is being constructed at a cost of US$60 million. Further, the NWC is currently embarking on the US$6 million rehabilitation project of 11 abandoned wells within the Corporate Area and six wells in south-east St Catherine to provide approximately 10 mgd to the water supply system for distribution.

Overall, the Government has spent over $5 billion or US$50 million towards the water and sewerage-related infrastructure improvement in KSA along Marcus Garvey Drive, Barbican Road, Hagley Park Road, Constant Spring Road and Mandela Highway under the transformative Major Infrastructure Development Programme. These are integral water corridors that supply water to almost the entire Corporate Area and once completed, will improve the resilience and reliability of the system immensely.


Increased focus on rural water

Importantly, we have embarked on an aggressive rural water supply programme through Rural Water Supply Limited (RWSL). This Government, having acknowledged the huge disparity that exists between rural and urban water supply systems has increased the allocation to RWSL from $100m to $795m. This has facilitated the start and completion of several major water supply systems across the country. Recently, the prime minister turned on the tap in Essex Valley, St Elizabeth, a supply system that is now serving thousands of residents in various areas of St Elizabeth.

Before the end of this financial year we will be on our way to completing works in Platfield, St Mary; Bangor Ridge & Cornwall Barracks, Portland; Ticki Ticki & Peart Spring, Manchester; Brandon Hill and Portland Cottage, Clarendon; Middle Quarters, St Elizabeth; Thicketts, St Ann; Spring Garden and other areas in St James and Cascade in Hanover, just to name a few.

The development of our rural water supply systems is also being done in tandem with the rehabilitation of 23 community catchment tanks across several parishes and the installation of rainwater harvesting infrastructure in over 30 rural schools.

Notwithstanding these developments, a lot more needs to be done towards diversifying our system, given the dependence on rainfall. The water sector is one of the most critical areas which requires transformative thinking and approaches in order to become more efficient and effective in ensuring that all Jamaicans have access to water. This Administration is committed to the advancement of development in a sustainable and holistic manner so that we adequately meet present and future water demand.



from all angles

Over the years, despite increases in demand due to population growth and development, our water supply and distribution systems have largely remained the same. This has presented significant challenges in delivering continued and reliable water supply to the country. It is clear that no one approach — desalination or otherwise — will solve Jamaica's water supply problems. For this reason the Government is advancing integrated, comprehensive and smart water management solutions to allow us to meet the increasing water demand and deliver sustainable and equitable water access to urban and rural communities.

Whilst our current situation poses many challenges to the management and provision of water supply services, it also presents an opportunity for us to make bold decisions to advance the water sector.

— Pearnel Charles Jr is minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic of Growth and Job Creation with responsibility for water, housing and infrastructure.