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We have enough water

Gov't agency says island won't run out of precious commodity any time soon

BY KIMONE THOMPSON Associate editor -- features thompsonk@jamaicaovbserver.com

Tuesday, March 18, 2014    

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JAMAICA will not run out of fresh water any time soon, the Government agency charged with ensuring the sustainability of the island's water resources has said.

It might be little consolation for the farmers in the breadbasket parish of St Elizabeth grappling with drought conditions and residents of Kingston and St Andrew enduring nightly water restrictions, but the Water Resources Authority (WRA) said the country uses less than 25 per cent of its reserves per year.

Speaking with the reporters and editors at the weekly Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange yesterday, WRA Managing Director Basil Fernandez said what feeds the perception that there isn't enough water is the uneven distribution of water resources across the island.

The resources are categorised as groundwater — supplied by springs and aquifers — and surface water — supplied primarily by rainfall.

"Our evaluation indicates that there is enough water... I don't want you to believe that because there is drought or dry season, or because you hear that there isn't enough water in Hermitage Dam means that is the issue across island," Fernandez said, pointing out that towns like Black River and May Pen "don't have a problem with water because they have groundwater".

"We are only using about 22-24 per cent of our available water resources. Roughly 90 per cent of our reserves are tied up in groundwater," he continued.

He explained that the uneven distribution problem is compounded by a higher demand for water in areas that have the lowest concentration of resources.

"We must understand that water across the island is not evenly distributed, neither in time nor space," he said, referencing the two periods during the year when the island experiences the highest rainfall — May-June and October-November.

"In terms of spatial distribution, the north-east side of the island gets the highest rainfall. It can go as high as 5,000 mm in some places, whereas on the south side the rainfall is literally under 400 mm per annum. Some places in south Clarendon get under 1,000 mm.

"But across Jamaica, the demand is the highest on the south side. You have more water resources on the north, but higher demand on the south, because on the south you have all the agricultural plains — St Catherine, Clarendon St Elizabeth for irrigation purposes; you have all the major urban centres — Kingston, Spanish Town, Portmore, May Pen, Black River, Mandeville; you have the major bauxite plants — all four of them are located on the south side of Jamaica; you have major industries that generate electricity that require water for cooling.

"That kind of skews things," Fernandez said, adding that the country needs to take a serious look at how to efficiently move water to the southern reaches of the island without hurting the tourism product concentrated on the north coast where the majority of activities are water-based

But although there is sufficient water now doesn't mean things can't change over time, given the threats of a warming climate. Jamaica isn't estimated to feel the effects of climate change until between 2050 and 2080, according to the WRA head, and as part of its mitigation planning the agency is promoting conservation

"We are keeping a very tight control on the allocation of resources and are looking to improve efficiency. We have to work with NWC to reduce unaccounted for, non-revenue water and also for the irrigation sector to move from flood irrigation. In light of climate change, you have to look at it from that point of view," he said.

In addition, Fernandez said the country ought to adopt the use of treated effluent for irrigation of trees, crops, and dedicated to fuel production, for example.

"It is a major resource that now goes to waste. I studied in Israel and went to lot of farms and I was surprised that they were using sewage effluent from way back in that time, the 80s, and we are allowing that resource to go to waste," the WRA head said.

It is a case previously made by former head of the National Water Commission Albert Gordon, who now heads the Office of Utilities Regulation, and a study is currently being done on how the effluent from the Soapberry Treatment Plant can be used in the St Catherine basin.

"That might release more fresh water for Kingston," said Fernandez.

According to Evan Thompson, deputy director of the Meteorological Service, although it's the dry season and there is reduced rainfall generally, St Elizabeth is currently the only parish experiencing drought, which is defined as having less than 60 per cent of its usual annual rainfall. Trelawny and Kingston and St Andrew are close behind.

Accompanying Fernandez and Thompson at the Monday Exchange were Adrian Shaw, also from the Met Office, Conservator of Forests Marilyn Headley, and Forestry Department Public Relations Officer Francine Black Richards.

Water Resources Authotity Managing Director Basil Fernandez (left) speaking during yesterday's Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange. Beside him is Evan Thompson, deputy director of the Meteorological Service. (PHOTO: NAPHTALI JUNIOR)

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