Kristen Gyles | Too much water waste!
Jamaica has no shortage of rain. The recent heavy outpouring which accompanied Ian was a timely reminder of how much rainwater this country gets. Every hurricane season, there is significant flooding and the same issues arise. The roads become flooded and we watch viral videos of all kinds of old junk floating by on seas of dirty floodwaters. Water levels rise so high in some cases that people have to evacuate their homes out of fear for their lives.
With all that said, who is willing to bet that within a matter of a few months, we will be faced with another drought? I’m not being pessimistic, but this has been the cycle and until something changes, there is no reason to believe the cycle will break. It is unfortunate that today your house can be flooded out with water and tomorrow you can be arguing with your neighbour over the audacity they must have to be watering their plants amid yet another drought.
One of Aesop’s most well-known fables is that of the ant and the grasshopper. The ant wisely stores his food during the summer when there is an abundant supply so that during the winter, there is no shortage. The grasshopper foolishly makes no preparation for the future, and instead, ends up begging the ant for some of the food he stored for himself. Well, there is no neighbour we can beg for water. When we fail to store, and consequently don’t have, we just have to do without.
The Mona Reservoir and Hermitage Dam are the largest water reservoirs in the country and are the only surface-storage facilities in Jamaica. However, they seem to carry more controversy than water. At the onset of every drought, there are renewed calls either for additional dams to be created or for the existing ones to be expanded or simply desilted. These suggestions seem not to have found favour with the National Water Commission (NWC), for technical reasons.
I am no engineer so I won’t pretend to know what the best approach is to address the water storage and distribution issues. What I will say is that the NWC has to be prepared to propose solutions, especially in the face of a decades-old problem. It is not enough to say what won’t work.
There is a rather myopic argument, too, that we need not focus on water storage. In fact, we should just rely on the rivers and natural water streams to give us a constant water supply and forget all the nonsense about forward planning. Sometimes it seems we take ‘one day at a time’ a bit too literally.
While it is true that the water supply system is affected by much more than just adequate water storage, it seems that our two largest water reservoirs, even when filled to capacity, can’t guarantee an adequate water supply for very long. Hence, the call for greater water storage.
Since the building of the Mona Reservoir in the 1940s, no significant water catchment facility has been built. To put things in context, in 1962, Jamaica’s population was 1.68 million. Now that the population is 1.8 times what it was then, the Mona Reservoir still holds the same 809 million gallons of water, except now there is more silt displacing water.
And then there is the issue of the damage that widescale flooding causes. The prime minister announced recently that the damage arising from Ian’s transit may require revisions to the national budget. Perennially, we have discussions regarding the country’s drainage system, and the many roads and bridges that become impassable when there are heavy rains.
The excuse, which is perhaps quite plausible, is that there simply isn’t enough money to fix every pothole or to repair every broken bridge. But … why?
Damage caused by flooding are not nearly as inevitable as we make them out to be. If we reduce flooding, we reduce the costs associated with repeated infrastructural and road repairs. We can reduce flooding by putting in place more deliberate measures to store water. The amount of money lost annually to damage caused by flooding as well as the cost of private water storage equipment, including tanks, should be motivation enough for national change to our water storage system. In a country where weather conditions are as bipolar as they are, greater planning is needed to ensure that when there is excess water, it is stored for treatment and future use.
The other issue is that perhaps every time we are told that the reservoirs are full to capacity, the first retort by residents across the country is “When will the water reach our pipes?” This highlights that aside from water storage, it seems we have an equally serious water distribution problem. Not long after Ian had passed by, some communities in St Thomas were reported to be suffering from an inconsistent water supply. One woman went as far as to say that for an entire year, water had come from her pipe once. How? Why?
Why does the land of wood and water suffer from waterlessness so much of the time? Somewhere along the line, it seems we need to get back to the drawing board. A lot of water goes to waste when there are heavy rains. If a fraction of that wasted rainwater could be harvested, Jamaicans would never need to repeat the word ‘drought’.
Kristen Gyles is a free-thinking public affairs opinionator. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.