Essex Valley scheme soon to come on tap, says MP Witter

Monday, July 30, 2018

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Junction, St Elizabeth — The Essex Valley domestic water supply scheme has repeatedly stopped and restarted since its launch in 2001 with the aim of bringing the life-giving liquid to thousands of people in south-east St Elizabeth.

But now, Member of Parliament for St Elizabeth South Eastern, Frank Witter believes completion of phase one of the project is just a few months away.

“The work is far advanced; I would say it is 60 to 70 per cent complete,” Witter told theJamaica Observer Centralby telephone on Friday.

Work left to be done includes completion of a booster station at Nain, which will lift water from the well site at Long Hill in Northampton to upland communities.

Witter says when the project's first phase is done and water starts flowing through National Water Commission (NWC) pipes laid several years ago, people in communities such as Myersville, Nain, Gazeland, Cheapside, Junction, Bull Savannah, and sections of Comma Pen and Dunder Hill will benefit.

Witter's revelations came against the backdrop of the almost annual drought which afflicts southern St Elizabeth at this time of year — drying up rainwater catchment/storage tanks and forcing farmers and householders to buy expensive truckloads of water.

He estimates that less than 20 per cent of his constituents currently receive piped water from the NWC, and many of those who do, benefit irregularly. Even after the Essex Valley water scheme chips in, Witter says only about 45 per cent of his constituents will received piped NWC water.

Estimates in recent years have suggested that less than 50 per cent of all St Elizabeth residents are served by the NWC.

For its part, the NWC has complained repeatedly down the years about water theft afflicting its service to population centres in the Santa Cruz Mountains such as Junction, Southfield and Malvern. Farmers downslope from such communities have been accused of diverting NWC water to irrigate their crops.

Witter is expecting that the Essex Valley irrigation scheme to be developed this year — administered by the Caribbean Development Bank with grant funding from the British government — will significantly reduce, if not eliminate, such water theft.

With very little rain since May, Witter, like many other rural MPs, has been forced to dip into Constituency Development Funds (CDF) to pay for truckloads of water delivered by private operators to the poorest of his constituents. The situation is made worse since the two water trucks owned by the St Elizabeth Municipal Corporation are out of service.

A quick tour of southern St Elizabeth communities by the Observer last Tuesday revived old stories.

At Warminster, in Myersville, just upland from the JISCO Alpart alumina plant in Nain, farmer Howard Lynch voiced hope that rain over two previous days was a sign the long dry spell had finally broken.

But, he said, even if that were the case, “drinking water” remained a big problem since pollutants carried in the wind from the Alpart plant — referred to by locals as “caustic” — was contaminating their stored supplies.

Lynch argued that the “caustic” negatively affected vegetation and even roofs “so it mus' trouble the water as well”.

He called for piped water supplies to be delivered to residents speedily and to all communities in the Essex Valley, “not just some”. He also reiterated calls for relocation of people to places that were “safer” and far from the alumina plant which reopened in 2017 by its new Chinese owners after being shut down since 2009.

Witter would later recall during his telephone conversation with the Observer that contamination of water supplies in areas around the Alpart plant was among the main reasons the Essex Valley domestic water supply scheme was first conceptualised two decades ago.

He noted that back then funding from Alpart was central to the initial project. Witter said he would be approaching the JISCO Alpart management for help to fund phase two of the Essex Valley water project once phase one is complete.

Several miles away at Ballards Valley/Top Hill, farmer Glenrick Burton, a returned resident, noted that the Essex Valley water schemes would not benefit him and his neighbours. However, he emphasised that the need for piped water in his farm-rich community was as great as anywhere else.

It was unfair for farmers and householders to have to fork out thousands of dollars on a regular basis to buy trucked water, he said. “This is 2018,” Burton said, “people shouldn't have to be doing that. I can't sleep sometimes because at three o' clock (3:00 am) in the morning you hear the water trucks going down, maybe to get first in the queue, wherever it is they go to get water, and is just one continuation after that, water truck after water truck, everyday…” he said.

Further south in the communities of Pedro Plains and Treasure Beach, residents said there had been no rain since May. Fortunately for many of them there was piped NWC water, even if it was irregular at times.

Some farmers said they were often forced to use domestic water for irrigation purposes even though the chlorinated liquid was considered unhealthy for plant life.

“We don't have no other choice since national irrigation water don't come this side,” explained Treasure Beach bartender Elsorine Stewart who doubles as vegetable farmer.

Another farmer, Jermaine Moxam was thankful that at least “we have steady water from the pipe”. He mused that the presence of a thriving tourist sector in Treasure Beach and neighbouring communities of south-west St Elizabeth was a big help. “Through the tourists [are]here [authorities] have to make sure we get it (water)…” he said.

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