In a Time of Crisis Jamaica Must Look for Opportunities

Wigton wind farm, Manchester, Jamaica.

It would seem that every day we wake up and open the newspapers, turn on our radios and watch the television Jamaica’s problems appear to be spiraling out of control.  If it isn’t the recent drought and water crisis it is the rising cost of living.  If not these crises, then it is the current extradition impasse with the US government or the ever present monster of crime and multitude social ills.

With all these simultaneous crises it is very difficult not to throw up your hands in despair.  In the face of these challenges I would like to suggest that the time is right for reflection, introspection and implementation of bold ideas.  I would like to refer to three main global issues which have are directly impacting our beloved isle. These issues are related and if not crises will become crises for Jamaica in short order if they are not addressed. I will briefly discuss them and offer some general approaches to mitigate the inevitable impacts.

Water Security

Like the crises related to the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74, water security is already a global and national priority. Water security can be defined as the ability to access sufficient quantities of clean water to maintain adequate standards of food and goods production, sanitation and health.  This current water crisis has been a long time in the making.

Our water woes are a symptom of our own failure to seriously address the problem of water collection, storage and distribution. Environmental scientists and water resource managers have been warning us for years about the failure to address the rampant deforestation and destruction of the watersheds that are the sources of water for our streams rives and aquifers. Furthermore inadequate town and urban planning, squatting as well as rampant over development all contribute to this current water crisis. External factors such as global warming and climate change are also contributors to the crisis.

Recently there has been a plethora of opinions for the solution to the recent water crisis. While I cannot claim to be a water resource management specialist, my point is that this crisis presents an opportunity for us Jamaicans. Ensuring water security for Jamaica depends on improvements in water storage and efficient distribution. Jamaica could take two possible approaches to address this crisis. A decentralized approach would include promoting an overall water collection and conservation policy. Addressing wastage and encouraging the use of gutters and household catchment tanks like those typically found in Manchester and South St Elizabeth are possible short term solutions.

A more centralized and longer term approach should include comprehensive repairs to existing reservoirs, better use of river diversion mechanisms and most importantly adopting integrated watershed management best practices.  Additionally, the bauxite companies with their (currently idle) heavy machinery could serve an important role in the creation of new reservoirs from previously mined out bauxite areas. The use of solar and wind power to generate electricity that can support the efficient collection and delivery of water should be an essential feature of both decentralized and centralized approaches.

The problem of unplanned housing is a more complex and difficult one. Informal communities are known to be loci for water (and electrical) theft which lead to wastage and increased costs for to paying customers. This problem of squatting cannot continue to be ignored.

Water scarcity is not a simple problem and cannot be solved by “quick fixes” such as using cloud seeding and desalination plants. The risks of cloud seeding are well known and desalination can have negative environmental impacts to the near-shore coastal environment. One byproduct of desalination is hyper-saline water and its release into the ocean can cause fish kills and accelerate coral reef degradation. Our coastline is already stressed from over development and pollution and can do without the additional negative impacts. The expense of adding essential minerals absent from desalinized water can also increase costs, making it prohibitive to use this option.  Desalinization should be the last resort and not our first choice. We already have a long list of solutions for Jamaica’s water problems, we just need to take bold steps to implement them

Food Security

Water security is directly linked to food security and agriculture. The use and conservation of water in agriculture with a particular focus on water policy formulation and the promotion of irrigated agriculture and efficient water use should be made a national priority.  Improved food security through increases in sustainable food production and productivity will lead to reduced year-to-year variability in food production leading to Jamaican’s having improved access to food.

The Ministry of Agriculture should continue to promote the incorporation of technology such as green houses, and drip irrigation. This would necessitate the recruitment of more post secondary and tertiary educated persons into agriculture creating a more diversified employment base in the sector. Agricultural policy must however promote sustainable agricultural practices that will result in reducing green house gas emissions, including converting farm waste to fertilizer or energy.

With the likely global shortages in food and water from climate change impacts, there are potential benefits to be gained from implementing a comprehensive national food and water security policy. These include: increased efficiency of water delivery leading to reduced costs, stable food prices, reduced dependence on imported food, employment creation, advances in food processing and storage.

Energy Security

Energy security rests on two principles: using less energy to provide needed services, and having access to technologies that provide a diverse supply of reliable, affordable and environmentally sound energy.

For Jamaica there is no need to re-invent the wheel. After careful benefit cost analysis, we should use the parts of the current national energy policy that can work. The first strategy should address energy conservation (domestic and industrial). A comprehensive energy policy would also overlap with national transportation policy and should include the promotion of light rail (for public transportation) and cargo transit of heavy goods and minerals.

Another opportunity that can come from the likely energy crisis is to explore the possibility of re-organizing the existing system of electrical power generation and delivery. In many countries the production of energy is separated from the purchase and distribution of energy. For Jamaica, this might help to reduce the monopoly of existing electricity providers. Reorganizing how power is sold through power purchase agreements may level the playing field thus leading to the promotion of more sources of renewable energy by removing price fixing that makes these sources of power uncompetitive. This is where our universities can play a role by providing more research and policy analysis on this issue.

Renewable energy solutions, such as solar or wind power also have the benefit of reducing our dependency on oil. These solutions limit the production of green house gases such as carbon dioxide and reduce global warming impacts. Renewable energy solutions can also be addressed by taking decentralized and centralized approaches.

The promotion of solar technologies, small scale wind turbines, use of agricultural waste and bio fuels among other methods could form part of a decentralized approach. This should be driven by the private sector with support from the government. This approach can also create well needed jobs. Notably, this overlaps with the policies relevant to food and water security.

Entrepreneurial activities such as the manufacture of batteries (power storage), innovations such as smart grid technologies that allow power to be sold to the grid and the penetration of hybrid and electric vehicles into the local market are possible economic benefits from a forward thinking energy policy.

The centralized (government driven) approach should include the development of large scale wind farms (on land and offshore), upgrading existing hydroelectric power generation as well as methane gas capture from landfills. Schools, hospitals, government buildings and water supply services (as mentioned previously) can also benefit from the incorporation of these technologies.

Implementing the solutions

The opportunities highlighted above are by no means new or revolutionary. In my opinion they represent possible approaches for addressing the expected challenges that are likely to continue in response to an ever changing global economic and geo-political landscape.

However, in the absence of a stable political, social and economic climate that respects the rights of all Jamaican citizens, all of the solutions I have suggested above are just words on paper.  Before implementing any of these possible solutions it would appear that we will first need to address the current crises related to extradition requests, political garrisons and their links to criminality and elected officials. The government’s preoccupation with these issues may preclude any of these solutions becoming a reality.

Perhaps the first opportunity that we as Jamaicans need to take is to demand constitutional reform. With real reform this might result in a culture of accountability, civility, educational excellence, the elimination of mediocrity and the promotion of peace and environmental sustainability, thus making it able to take on the current challenges facing the nation and the world.

Time is running out, we must seize the day.

Dr. Peter Edwards is a Marine Scientist, Environmental Economist and Policy Analyst. He has worked as an environmental consultant and UWI researcher. He currently works as a contractor for a US Federal Environmental Management Agency.

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