THE passage of Hurricane Sandy last Wednesday has refocused attention on the need for new legislation for housing and other developments, as well as no-build zones.
Several communities, including Caribbean Terrace and Kintyre in St Andrew, Whitehorses in St Thomas, Annotto Bay in St Mary, and Treasure Beach in St Elizabeth were among those impacted by the category one hurricane, which left in its wake about a billion dollars in infrastructural damage and forced hundreds in shelters.
Now, Minister of Water, Land, Environment and Climate Change Robert Pickersgill says the question of spatial planning is high on his agenda. As such, he said he was “beefing up” the section of his ministry that deals with this matter.
“Very shortly, I will make an announcement on that,” Pickersgill told the Jamaica Observer last Friday, adding that he will have a clearer picture of the matter this week, following a series of meetings.
Former Minister of Water, Environment and Housing, Dr Horace Chang said, while zoning is critical to Jamaica’s development, political will and resources are needed to make it happen.
To emphasise his point, he said a national land use plan as well as the long-awaited building code are both in the works and could be completed in another three years. However, Chang said given Jamaica’s history of informal settlements, enforcing zoning laws will take time and understanding from the population.
“In our situation, we have a lot of informal settlers, and their presence can become a source of decay and contamination and result in landslides,” said the current Opposition spokesman on housing, water and environment. “Better zoning, proper planning is what we lack and this goes back centuries. The country would have to understand that it will take some time to get over these legacy issues.”
As such, he said more long-term planning is needed, which would involve using the Housing Act to acquire land and reserving it for housing and other developments. For example, he said that land in parts of downtown Kingston could be acquired for the construction of low-income housing for persons who work in the area.
This, Chang said, would to help to revive the capital city and create a more sustainable environment.
Still, he said a considerable challenge would be to compensate persons resettled in areas away from no-build zones.
“For example, for the people living in Sandy Park, it would take money to resettle them to an area that is comparable to where they are living,” Chang said.
The debate over zoning has been ongoing for years now. As far back as 2003, for example, then head of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) Barbara Carby urged the monitoring and enforcement of regulations that a ban on the building of houses in hazardous areas.
She noted at the time that this would be critical if the island is to minimise the fallout from natural disasters of which Hurricane Sandy — a late-season system that packed winds of up to 130 kilometres per hour — is a prime example.
She, like Chang, pointed to the need for proper land management to help solve the problem.
“Many of the settlements that are in vulnerable areas are actually informal settlements, they are not officially planned developments,” Carby told the Observer in September of 2003, following her return from a sixmonth secondment to Belize to help that country plan for disasters other than floods.
“So it seems to me that there is a larger issue now of how do we manage our land resources so that people have access to land and do not have to settle in hazardous areas. So it really is an extremely complex situation with many sort of social ramifications that go beyond emergency management.”
Meanwhile, Karema Aikens-Mitchell, senior director of mitigation, planning and research at ODPEM, said the agency — one of a number of entities consulted before developments are approved — is currently developing hazard maps for the island to better inform people.
At the same time, she said ODPEM had successfully implemented a number of micro-disaster risk reduction projects in vulnerable communities, which appear to have reaped some dividends through a reduction in the loss of life and property from the recent hurricane.
Among the communities to have benefited from the projects, she said, are Annotto Bay in St Mary, which has experienced several floods in recent years, including 2005 and 2009. ODPEM has also implemented mitigation projects in Portland Cottage in Clarendon and Old Harbour Bay in St Catherine.
According to Aikens-Mitchell, once the level of the hazard threat is known, persons can make a decision as to whether mitigation measures can be implemented to make an area habitable.
“Sometimes moving is not always the solution, sometimes it is a different way of designing,” she said.