BY GARFIELD MYERS Editor-at-large South/Central Bureau firstname.lastname@example.org
SANTA CRUZ, St Elizabeth — As seasonal drought conditions worsen in southern St Elizabeth, local political leaders say they are intensifying efforts to assist residents whose domestic water catchment and storage sources are running dry.
Vast swathes of St Elizabeth are without service from state-run water provider, the National Water Commission (NWC). Residents in those areas are traditionally dependent on the harvesting of rainwater which is stored in concrete, metal and plastic tanks, and/or on trucked water.
Chairman of the St Elizabeth Parish Council and Mayor of Black River Everton Fisher told the Jamaica Observer that two trucks operated by the parish council are now taking water to the worst-affected areas in the parish’s southern belt daily.
He identified the most parched communities as Flagaman, Ballards Valley, sections of Myersville, Junction and Pedro Plains.
In St Elizabeth and the wider southern Jamaica, the period between early December and the end of March traditionally brings very little rainfall; but the current drought is said to be the worst since 2010.
“Fortunately, there has been some amount of rain in the north so that has taken some of the pressure off,” said Fisher, who is the councillor (PNP) for the Balaclava Division in North East St Elizabeth, said.
Fisher said he was expecting further help from central government.
“We recently met with Minister (Robert) Pickersgill who promised to see if he could get us an additional truck; we also expect that members of parliament will be getting some funds,” the Mayor said.
Member of Parliament for South East St Elizabeth, Richard Parchment confirmed that a pledge had come for “funds to be made available for emergency trucking of water using private trucks”. He said the money would be funnelled through the parish council to ease what he is describing as a crisis.
Parchment was unable to give a figure but a reliable source told the Sunday Observer, the amount would be about $4 million for St Elizabeth.
As another emergency measure, Parchment said the government was in the process of breathing new life into the long dormant rapid response service by repairing a number of trucks which are being used by the National Irrigation Commission (NIC) to truck untreated water.
He emphasised that NIC water is intended for irrigation and should be boiled or otherwise purified before drinking.
“We are stressing to everyone that this is not recommended drinking water, you should boil it, if you find you have to drink it,” he said.
Parchment said arrangements had been made to have “spares” for pumps at water sources such as Hounslow in the parish’s South West and New Forest on South East St Elizabeth’s border with southern Manchester. This is meant to ensure that mechanical breakdowns do not lead to a loss of water for “months at a time” as has happened previously.
Also, the long-awaited Essex Valley Water Scheme which will service a substantial section of South East St Elizabeth, including fast-growing Junction, will be completed in about 18 months, Parchment said.
“When that’s commissioned in 2014, the water problems that have retarded the further development of Junction should be no more,” Parchment said. “We have business places including banks and fast-food restaurants lining up, just waiting for the water problem to be fixed, so they can come into Junction,” he said.
He urged the NWC, the local police and citizens’ groups to come together to put a stop to theft, which he said was among the main reasons Junction and surrounding districts lack piped NWC water.
The NWC has, for years, identified the siphoning of water from their lines by farmers on the slopes below Junction as a major reason for water shortages in that area. Once the main lines are punched, temporary lines are inserted to irrigate nearby farms. When the temporary lines are removed, the water runs to waste.
“Right now if it wasn’t for the stealing of water Junction would have potable piped NWC water, and we have to put a stop to it,” Parchment said.
He hoped that the commissioning of an irrigation scheme originating at New Forest/Duff House will make it easier for farmers to access cheap irrigation water and reduce the incentive to illegally tap NWC lines.
Parchment also identified an ongoing programme to repair community water tanks, referred to as parish tanks, as a measure that is helping rural districts to meet their water needs.
However, given the current situation, he said there was no alternative to trucking water, especially since according to him, studies had shown that total rainfall in South East St Elizabeth in 2012 was the lowest in decades.
“That lower than usual rainfall means that some catchment tanks that would normally still have water are now dry,” Parchment said.
However, so high is the cost of trucking water, Fisher said St Elizabeth parish councillors had decided at a recent retreat that residents and institutions such as schools and churches should be asked to give a “small contribution”. Currently potable water trucked by the parish council is bought from the NWC and distributed free.
Fisher said the parish council had also decided it could no longer afford to deliver water to NWC customers who find themselves without water because of breakdowns in the water company’s delivery systems.
“In the past we have delivered to everyone including NWC customers. We can no longer do that,” Fisher said.
He said that efforts to come to “an arrangement” with the NWC to reduce costs have been resisted by the water company.
Fisher claimed that for a period last year, the NWC closed its water loading bays to the parish council because of unpaid bills.