IN addition to limitations on access, the introduction of a system of rainwater harvesting and Ventilated Improved Pit (VIP) latrines have been posited as likely answers to the public health and environmental challenges on the Pedro Cays.
An expanding garbage dump, the absence of running water and a lack of adequate, sanitary toilet facilities are all challenges being faced by the more than 400 Jamaicans who call the islands home, some of them for up to six months each year.
Also present on the islands are several species of birds; the likes of the Masked Booby, for which the cays are renowned as a safe haven. They are also known nesting sites for turtles.
However, with the 400-plus human inhabitants on the Middle and Northeast cays — two of the three islands that make up the Pedro Cays — at various points during the year, environmentalists are worried this could become a thing of the past.
The sheer number of people aside, occupants of Middle Cay, for example, have — in the absence of proper toilet facilities — resorted to designating a section of that tiny island as an area for passing urine and faeces.
Now, to solve the problem of a lack of running water, the Water Resources Authority (WRA) has proposed rainwater harvesting.
"Rain also falls on the cays [so] that [rainwater harvesting] is a likely source [of water for residents]," said WRA Deputy Managing Director Herbert Thomas.
He said it is a viable option, in the absence of any fresh water resources on the islands.
"When we have looked at the water resources of the island [Jamaica], the cays have never been looked at. I am not even too sure there are any freshwater resources there and what we know is that there is no surface water sources [such as] rivers or springs," Thomas the told Jamaica Observer.
However, he said that the rainwater harvesting option is not one that can be pursued in isolation from the number of people on the island since the authorities would have to "be able to determine what the demand would be like and put in the right size catchment area to catch the water and to store it."
At the same time, Thomas said there is no question that there are other options that could be pursued, including, perhaps, getting piped water to the islands.
"I am sure engineers can do anything, including constructing pipelines to get there, but it depends on the economic feasibility. So there are possible engineering solutions, but then a cost benefit analysis would have to be done to determine how feasible that is," he said.
Currently, residents receive fresh water from the Jamaica Defence Force Coast Guard, which has a permanent station on Middle Cay.
To solve the toilet woes, Everton Baker, chief public health inspector with the Kingston and St Andrew Public Health Department, has proposed the construction of VIP latrines. He has maintained that he sees no other option in the absence of running water.
"If you are going to implement a water carriage system, you are going to have to ensure you have a consistent water supply on the island and that challenge becomes even greater when you have 500-plus people to use the system. So it means that the most feasible system, in my opinion, is the VIP disposal system," he said.
"With that, what you cater for is a sealed vault, meaning it is like a swimming pool and they'll be two vaults. What you do is use one and then move to the other. And after we have deterioration of the waste under anaerobic conditions, then the waste can be manually removed or otherwise removed and buried because it will be more or less inert at that time. And you keep alternating between vaults over the years and that will give you a lifetime kind of operation," Baker added.
As with rainwater harvesting, however, he said the population of the cays will have to be accounted for to allow for the construction of the appropriate number of toilets to ensure they are "kept in a certain sanitary state".
Further, Baker said a likely drawback of the system is that it would be down to the people using the facilities to clean them.
"One of the drawbacks with VIPs is the whole culture of people; even though the waste is going to be harmless, they would not want to clean it out, even with a shovel. So the vault is there, but it is not going to be cleaned by the people. And it can't be the Government that is going to clean it, it has to be the citizens," he told Environment Watch.
At the same time, Baker said that with the construction of three of those facilities on the main cay (Middle Cay) and the other occupied cay (the Northeast Cay), wash stations would also have to be set up.
"You would have to set up wash hand stations with a makeshift running water system adjacent to those facilities; you must have makeshift running water system," the public health inspector said.
"It would be useless having those toilets without adequate facilities to wash hands because you are talking about spreading disease within the population and maybe taking it back to mainland. People have organisms that might be transmitted via the faeces that will definitely pose a risk to other people. These risks include cholera, gastrointestinal disease, typhoid fever, etc," he added.
Since the Observer broke the news of the looming health crisis at the Pedro Cays two weeks ago, Government has been seeking to address the problems there. Already, they have held at least two meetings, initiated by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, with a number of government stakeholders and representatives from the environment sector, notably the Jamaica Environment Trust and The Nature Conservancy.
They have resolved so far to limit the number of people on the cays, beginning with the removal of those who do not have licences, according to Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Roger Clarke.
"I think, they [the cays] have about 400 [people]; it used to be about 1,000. It has to be reduced; it can't be that. You reaching a stage now where we appear to be having more fishers than fish," Clarke told Environment Watch on Monday.
At the same time, he said they would have to limit the number of people who receive licences to fish on the cay.
"The people on the cays get licenses to fish on the cays. We will have to look at limiting the number of licences. That is only way; it can't carry. As a matter of fact, a total review has to be taken in terms of the number of people," Clarke said.
The minister said they are also to tackle the burgeoning garbage dump on Middle Cay. A visit by the eight-member Government team to the cay yesterday was undertaken with a view to working out the logistics of how that will be done, while providing them with insight into the other challenges.
Further, the Government has committed to undertaking a census to provide precise data on the number of people inhabiting the cays as well as details on their socio-economic status. They have promised, too, to put in place an inter-ministerial committee to oversee the long-term management of the cays, which, Clarke said rake in some US$30 million, given "the conch reserves and our export of conch each year".