NATURE can still heal itself, if we give it the urgent attention it needs.
The above phrase was emblazened at the top of a UN Environment Programme special report issued on August 8, 2019 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which unveiled how climate change, land management and global food security interact with each other, creating complex feedback loops.
Here in Jamaica, various projects are being unveiled to deal with climate change issues which are not only creating stress on the living environment, but are also negatively affecting the pockets of ordinary Jamaicans for whom ecological degradation means economic stagnation.
"Our national development goals are at risk unless Jamaica builds its resilience to the impacts of climate change," Barbara Scott, deputy director general, external cooperation and project development, Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) told the audience at the recent launch of the national project to tackle climate change issues through the restoration of watershed areas which have been degraded over time.
The national project, dubbed A Jamaican Path from Hills to Ocean, seeks to restore three watershed areas which have been severely degraded. It is funded to the tune of $192 million by the European Union (EU) and the Government of Jamaica.
The PIOJ is the executing agency for the project, working with the Public Gardens Division of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA), the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, the Forestry Department, the Meteorological Services of Jamaica, the Water Resources Authority and the Life Sciences Department of The University of the West Indies, Mona.
Under that programme, community-based organisations of farmers, fisher folk, entrepreneurs and environmental groups are given support to improve their stewardship of these three targeted watershed areas — the Wag Water Watershed Management Unit in St Mary, including Castleton Gardens; the Rio Nuevo Water Watershed Management Unit in St Ann; and the Rio Bueno/White River Water Watershed Management Unit in St Ann and Trelawny.
In total, Jamaica boasts 26 watershed management units classified under four broad groups. But, stymied by funding, the PIOJ and its partners selected these three for urgent attention in the hope that lessons learnt from these projects will help to inform other intervention measures in the future. Four of the 26 watersheds are "ranked as severely degraded", Ainsworth Caroll, director planning projects monitoring research at NEPA, said in remarks presented at the launch.
"There are several activities and interventions that lead to the degradation of farm and watershed management unit lands — illegal land clearing, settlement expansion and associated improper waste disposal, poor farming practices, and forest fires are the major contributors to the degradation of our watersheds," Caroll continued as he calls for improvements on the existing working partnerships and agreements among key agencies of government, including the local municipal corporations, the RADA, the Social Development Commission, the Forestry Department, and community-based organisations to tackle what is quickly becoming a crisis.
He cited that so far, in similar interventions in the Yallahs and Hope River watershed management units, over 400 farmers were trained to help manage the areas, with more than 500 hectares of degraded lands rehabilitated.
"The aim of the Hills to Oceans project is to promote sustainable livelihoods while strengthening the resilience of the country and communities to climate change. The project uses the integrated landscape management approach, recognising the impact of activities in the upper reaches of the watersheds on downstream communities," Scott highlighted.
One of the downstream areas which is severely affected is agriculture, which is "particularly vulnerable to the increases in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events such as drought and hurricanes, escalating rainfall variability, intensity of rainfalls (variability in one sense that the rain is not coming when they use to), higher surface temperatures, rising sea levels combined with fragile ecosystems", according to Courtney Cole, chief technical director in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.
"Jamaica is particularly susceptible to watershed degradation as approximately 80 per cent of the land surface is hilly or mountainous areas and more than 50 per cent having slopes greater than 10 degrees. Of note, small farming occupies uplands and hilly terrains of central parishes, and the impact of disasters and climate change threatens agriculture and livelihoods in these areas. This has resulted in the agriculture sector experiencing periods of extensive drought followed by extensive and intensive flooding, resulting in $2 billion of losses between 2014 and 2017," Cole said.
He quoted data which project a considerable dry trend for the majority of the Caribbean basin during this century. "Jamaica is not spared, and the estimates are as high as 30 per cent for the reduction in rainfall. Additionally, it has been predicted that there will be shortages in available water resources and increases in evapotranspiration — which already presents a direct challenge to the water resources that we have access to.
"The reality is that these climate-driven impacts on the agriculture sector are likely to worsen. But, we have to build resilience and it is within this context that the ministry has put in place several programmes to lessen the impact on all areas of life and sectors in the economy.
"We have therefore been implementing climate change adaptation strategies and methods in every aspect of our agricultural planning and production systems and activities." Some include increasing irrigation. Cole said the agriculture ministry is currently irrigating 1500 hectares and is seeking projects to do more. At the same time, he said the ministry is also implementing drought-resistance measures such as construction and rehabilitation of water catchment areas, building microdams, increasing renewable sources of energy such as solar power to start pumps to move water to farm gates, and is also focusing on mariculture and polyculture in the fisheries industry.
"As our marine environment is impacted, we have to see how we diversify, because the demand for protein will continue to rise and so when we are seeing negative impacts in the marine sector we have to diversify in the terrestrial sectors."
There are also increased investments in alternate technology such as greenhouse technology and renewed focus on greening the country.
The Water Resources Authority forecasts 18 per cent increase in water use in the agriculture sector at a time when there is expected to be reduction in the availability of water.
"All these impacts will contribute to soil degradation and loss of fertility," Cole added.
With those issues in mind, and with the tourism sector also facing issues because of climate change, Scott said the solutions to the problem were designed and executed with non-State actors such as civil society groups and community organisations.
While the project was launched this year, it actually began in 2021.
"In November 2021 under the project, fieldwork commenced for the rapid ecological assessment of three targeted watershed management units — the Wag Water watershed in St Mary, the Rio Nuevo in St Ann, and the Rio Bueno/White River watershed in St Ann and Trelawny. The rapid ecological assessment which was conducted by the Department of Life Sciences at UWI, Mona is perhaps one of the largest and most important [studies] of its kind in Jamaica in recent times. It provides a comprehensive and in-depth assessment of the socio-economic aspects of the three watersheds, their biological and physical features, as well as an assessment of the possible climate change threat and other stressors on their ecosystems.
"This will be useful not only in informing action and activities to be executed under the Hills to Oceans project, but hopefully the information generated by the rapid ecological assessment will inform the development of climate change and environmental policies nationally, as well as the design of further interventions in the watersheds."
In addition to working on the current project, the NEPA official said it will finalise the watershed policy for Jamaica this year.
"This policy defines an integrated water resources management approach; and critical also in this policy is the framework which will continue to build out the interventions necessary for watershed areas management model (WAMM) and the full development of the payment for ecosystem services mechanism," Caroll pointed out.