Jamaica's Dream of Universal Access to Water Evaporates

By Zadie Neufville

KINSGTON, Jamaica, March 27, 2002 (ENS) - The head of Jamaica's water protection agency the Underground Water Authority (UWA) says despite deterioration of watersheds across the island, water shortages are largely due to government's inability to develop available water sources.

According to Basil Fernandez, Jamaica has more than enough water to supply its population of close to 2.6 million, but the state owned National Water Commission (NWC) is hampered in its commitment to "make water accessible to every Jamaican" by 2005 because the government is broke.

Data from the Ministry of Finance shows that about 60 cents of each dollar goes to servicing Jamaica's overseas debts.


Basil Fernandez heads Jamaica's Underground Water Authority (Photo courtesy Jamaica Water Resources Authority)
According to Fernandez, the man responsible for protecting the island's water resources, Jamaica is using less than one fifth of its total available water. The National Planning and Environment Agency (NEPA) reports that only about 10 percent of the island water resources has been lost as a result of pollution and saline intrusion and a small portion of the watersheds degraded.

Water Ministry spokesman Christopher Castriota says a lack of spare parts, in combination with blocked, leaking and rusting pipes and infrastructure that has failed to keep pace with population growth are some of the problems hampering the work of the National Water Commission.

The water storage systems for the Kingston Metropolitan Area are no longer adequate to serve the needs of the city's more than 716,000 people, Castriota warns. Technicians complain that spare parts for some of the ancient water pumps are no longer available, and after the closure of the NWC's own workshop in a rationalization program two years ago, they sometimes must wait for weeks until a privately owned machine shop builds the needed parts.

National Water Commission public relations man Charles Buchanan says the replacement of old clogged up and rusting pipes that may be 60 years old, as well as the maintenance and replacement of ageing systems is taking a large chunk of the NWC's budget and resources.

The agency is now looking at conservation as one way of ensuring that more water reaches its customers. "We are trying to cut back on the amount of water that goes to waste from the pipes and catchment facilities, this will ensure that more water is available to go through the network," he said.

Castriota says, "We have spent hundreds of millions replacing pipes for the last four years but it is still like a drop in the bucket. It will be another two to three years before any significant improvement is seen in some areas." In the last year alone, more than US$105 million have been spent to bring water to more than 300 new communities.


Black River, Jamaica (Photo courtesy Masher)
But Office of Utilities Regulations' J. Paul Morgan says the large scale commissioning of new systems along with island wide upgrading and replacement programs "may not be sustainable".

According to Morgan, the NWC's rapid expansion is uneconomic, an added burden on existing operations and could undermine the NWC's quality of service unless there is a rate increase to take care of the additional expenses. Current revenue is simply not enough to cover the costs of all the commission's activities, he says cautioning that even with an increase many of the new systems will simply suffer from a lack of maintenance.

The Office of Utilities Regulations is the agency responsible for regulating public utility companies.

Fernandez wants agencies to erase age-old beliefs that says water is abundant and should be free. So Water Day celebrations on March 22 focused on public education and water conservation.

"We think people believe they won't save money even if they use less water, so we are going into schools and working through community organizations to get them to see the savings that can be made," Morgan said.

But despite the struggles, Water Minister Karl Blythe won't give up on his dream of "universal access to water" for all Jamaicans. "Not only is water a critical pre-condition for economic development, but it is a major index of the quality of life," he said.

While emphasising the people's need for the precious fluid, he wants to place "emphasis on better management and more sustainable management of water resources." This includes finding additional sources of water for the Kingston Metropolitan Area, protecting the island's water sources and a massive program to connect all of the capital city to a working and environmentally friendly sewage system.

Fernandez says such a sewage system would allow recovery of the large amounts of polluted water that lie unused in the aquifers beneath the capital.

"Kingston was mainly developed on a system of soak-away pits for sewage disposal and that contaminated the underground sources. We have to remove these if we intend to recover that water, Fernandez says.

But at the top of the agenda, he says, is finding the funding the implement the National Water Resources Master Plan and remove the water lock-offs and dry taps that plague Kingston and other parts of the island.