Water woes pose crucial challenges for farming's future
Local farmer Michael Mclish says he uses about 1,200 gallons of water weekly for pig rearing.

Farming is a legitimate source of income that has helped many Caribbean families out of financial struggles over the past decades. However, today, climate change casts a dark cloud over agriculture where water security is concerned.

Caribbean islands face the threat of severe water scarcity more and more each day, and farmers from those islands are being urged to watch how they use water for irrigation, and pesticide and fertiliser applications, among other things.

In 2016, the Caribbean Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH) put several Caribbean countries under an immediate drought watch. The situation was “a major concern” due to the “below-normal” rainfall recorded during the previous dry and wet seasons, putting human health and the environment at risk.

The countries included Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, northern Guyana, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and northern Suriname.

Keeta Bowens, a St Vincent farmer, told the Jamaica Observer that she wouldn't survive if another drought were to hit her country. Currently, she sources water from a small spring near her seven-acre farm.

“I farm dasheen, potato, carrot, cucumber, watermelon, sweet pepper, tomato. Because of what I farm, water is very important to me. And where I am farming, there is a small spring close by. That's where I source my water from. The distance to a river from where the land is a lot,” she said.

Locally, Wayne Thomas, a St Catherine-based livestock farmer, said improving water management is essential to a viable and productive agro-food sector.

“I rear chicken, pig and cow. Water is the most important thing. We use water to wash the animals and feed them. For example, we have to wash out the pig pen and the animals have to consume water,” he said.

“In droughts, truck affi truck water up in our place. We have to buy water from a well and they transport it through the area. How much you spend to truck water depends on how big your farm is,” he said, noting that he has 10 acres of land.

For chicken rearing alone, he said that requires at least two trucks of water a week.

“One truck carry 3,000-odd gallon. It depends on the size of the farm… I have to get water every week. Some farmers have to get water every day of every two days. You have farmers that draw water six, seven, eight trips for the day,” he told the Sunday Observer.

Poultry farmer Valdez Bullock, also from St Catherine, said he uses about 80,000 gallons of water monthly.

“It is my truck and the operational cost on that per load is about $11,000 per trip. It carries almost 10,000 gallons. I purchase the water, buy gas oil, pay the driver. I source the water down at Green Acres (pumping station) in St Catherine,” he said.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Resilient Caribbean Initiative has implemented a Water Energy Food (WEF) Nexus subproject in Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Jamaica, and St Kitts and Nevis.

The project, launched in February 2021, will run until 2023 and will include solar-powered irrigation alternatives, including aquaponic or hydroponic systems.

An estimated 70 farmers from across the beneficiary countries will involve the implementation of selected water and energy efficient irrigation, water harvesting and storage systems.

Bajan farmer Devane Toppin sources water from catchment wells.

“When there is a drought and we don't really get any rain to collect the water in the wells, the water pressure gets low. It replenishes as long as we are getting rain. We got to hope the rain falls,” he told the Sunday Observer.

“Various farmers using the water out of the wells, so some will be coming out and if some coming out and none going back in, you know what will happen. The water levels will get low. Therefore, water will go on a ration where there will be a split down of the amount of farmers in half and half will get water at a certain time on a schedule, and then the other half on another schedule,” Toppin added.

Michael Mclish, operator of The Clucking Chicken Ja — located in Portmore, St Catherine, uses about 1,200 gallons of water weekly, and that is only for his pigs.

“Adequate and safe water is essential for healthy animals. Having water available to livestock allows for optimal animal performance. Feed intake is directly related to their water intake, so the less an animal drinks, the less feed it will consume which will lead to reduced weight gain. Water is needed for the digestion of food, excretion and for cooling down the body's temperature,” Mclish said.

“It includes, but is not limited to, supplying drinking water to livestock and chickens, cleaning of animals, cleaning of chicken coop and pig pen, growing of crops, crop cooling, fertiliser spreading, etc.”

Mclish told the Sunday Observer that he sources water from a canal that flows from the Rio Cobre under the irrigation organisation and National Water Commission (NWC) waterlines.

“Animals need to have access to water at least three to four times a day, so if I'm unable to get water for two days straight, they will start to eat less and more slowly, which will reduce the potential for daily weight gain. If that happens, they are more at risk to all kinds of diseases and that will lead to a decrease in production,” he said.

The National Irrigation Commission Ltd (NIC) said Jamaica is “extremely vulnerable” to drought, with February to March and July to August usually being the driest periods. The commission said as a result, plans need to be put in place to mitigate the possible effects of drought.

Ainsworth Riley, the Inter-American Institute for Co-operation on Agriculture (IICA) agribusiness specialist in Jamaica, told the Sunday Observer that climate change is at the top of the agenda where the agriculture sector is concerned, because it impacts both farmers across livestock as well as crops.

“In recent years, the weather patterns has not been adhering to the normal, and so, we have periods of high intensity of rainfall and then we have periods of drought. We encourage farmers to make adjustments to their farming practices,” said Riley.

“In the case of those who are doing crops, we emphasise drip irrigation systems so that they use less water. Along with the irrigation system, we encourage having a storage tank connected to that and connected to the storage tank, we try to promote water harvesting systems whether it be from the catchment of their roofs, or they can set up a little shed with zinc at the top and conduits so when it rains, they can harvest and store water.”

Keeta Bowens, a St Vincent farmer, says she uses chemicals toward off insects from her crops.
BY ROMARDO LYONS Staff reporter lyonsr@jamaicaobserver.com

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