Ganja farmers hijack water

Ganja farmers hijack water

...Leaving dozens of paying NWC customers without the commodity

Editor at Large, South Central Bureau

Thursday, October 08, 2020

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SANTA CRUZ, St Elizabeth — Her agitation was obvious as Melva Clarke spoke by telephone to the Jamaica Observer about water problems at the Southfield Housing Scheme last Monday.

“Right now mi wet up, because I have to be catching water in the rain,” Clarke said.

She explained that she had been filling kegs with rainwater flowing from the roof of her house. Wet weather was a feature of last weekend as well as Monday and Tuesday, because of a tropical depression to the south of the island.

Clarke and her neighbours in the Southfield Housing Scheme, phases one, two and three told the Observer earlier this week that they were into their fourth week without any piped water from the National Water Commission (NWC), triggering desperation.

The NWC's regional manager, Jermaine Jackson, said the situation is the direct result of farmers who plant “legal” crops as well as illegal ganja farmers puncturing NWC pipelines on the southern slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains in order to steal water.

The problem goes back many years, and has hampered efforts by the water agency to service customers in numerous upland communities in southern St Elizabeth, including Junction, Top Hill, Southfield and Malvern.

One customer in Malvern told the Observer by WhatsApp on the weekend that the latest crisis had left him without running water for three weeks. “I am at my wit's end,” he said.

Following initial complaints from Southfield residents last week, Jackson told the Observer that residents' plight won't be sustainably eased until a way is found to stop the water thieves.

“It is and will continue to stay this way until civil society and higher authorities from the security side help to fight the illegal activities taking place across the Malvern Mountains,” Jackson said last Thursday.

“They [water thieves] have damaged our infrastructure. There are hundreds of illegal connections, which every month we have to carry out operations costing to the extent of $400,000 to remove illegal connections. As it is now, the system is out of operation for almost seven days as a result of illegal activities taking place.

“... It takes money to pump, treat and deliver this commodity,” Jackson said.

In many cases, including the latest crisis, no sooner had the NWC workers repaired damaged water lines, other holes are punched elsewhere, Jackson said.

Pictures forwarded to the Observer by the NWC showed workers attempting to do repair work on damaged pipelines in an area taken over by a ganja field.

In response to questions, Jackson noted that ganja farming had nothing to do with the NWC and was entirely a matter for the police.

Regarding enforcement measures to combat water theft, Jackson complained that while the NWC in partnership with the police have prosecuted farmers, the penalties are too light.

“We have been doing prosecutions [but] the charges are small...something needs to be done about the law and the Act, whereby the fines are larger...judge most times will just tell them [water thieves] to pay whatever is due to the NWC and that's about it. We need stronger laws...” he said.

Jackson said, in some cases, NWC workers felt physically threatened by people believed to be water thieves.

However, NWC customers in the communities of the Santa Cruz Mountains say they have grown weary — over a period of many years — of hearing about water theft being the source of the problems.

They argue that bill-paying customers of the NWC shouldn't have to suffer as a result of the inadequacies of the State.

“That [water theft] shouldn't be the problem of the consumer. That is their problem, they need to resolve it. I have been telling the NWC that for many years,” Edward Richards, another resident of the Southfield Housing Scheme, said.

Noting that people were asked to pay a service charge, regardless of whether running water is available, Richards said he was in the process of trying to find a lawyer who would be willing to represent customers.

“Charging us for something we don't get must be wrong. That has to be illegal,” he argued.

Residents of the Southfield Housing Scheme said usually, when things are good, they get piped water once per week, although on some occasions the water doesn't reach higher elevations. The once weekly supply system worked because residents would fill their plastic drums and other containers with water — enough to last at least a week.

They said things have been especially “bad” since July with little or no water in the pipes, forcing them to rely on trucked water from the NWC. At times they have had to buy water from private truckers for up to $15,000 per truckload.

They claim everything changed for the better the day after the September 3 General Election, with water rushing through the pipes every day. That was the case for four days for some sections of the community and for others up to five, six days.

But, since then there has been no water.

“We couldn't believe it. After election they flooding us with water every day, like they were celebrating, or the people who turn off the water drunk...then everything just stop,” one resident said.

Jackson told the Observer that there was no connection between water supply and the parliamentary election. The situation described by the residents would have been purely coincidental, he said.

Jackson reiterated that while work crews were striving to restore regular water supplies, constant activity and vandalism by water thieves were undermining the NWC's best efforts.

NWC customers in the Southfield Housing Scheme said that apart from the absence of running water for long periods, customer care from the water agency is poor.

They charge that the NWC office is often inaccessible by phone, and truck drivers who bring water deliver the commodity unequally. They also pointed out that they are being billed for trucked water and allege that some drivers demand payment for delivering trucked NWC water.

NWC customers in the Southfield Housing Scheme believe the relative lack of response to water problems from the wider community may be as a result of rainwater catchment tanks to be found in most homes which pre-date the housing schemes. Residents of south-central Jamaica often build large concrete rainwater catchment tanks to cope with chronic water shortage.

When the tanks run dry in periods of drought, people often buy trucked water from private contractors.

It's estimated that 30 per cent or more of St Elizabeth residents still do not have access to NWC water.

Richards, who has lived in the Southfield Housing Scheme since it was completed by the National Housing Trust (NHT) in 1991, says the situation involving the availability of NWC piped water has got consistently worse, not better.

“If this is the new Jamaica, I don't want to live in it,” he said.

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