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Drag the nation's water systems into the 21st century, Minister Charles Jr

...scratching and kicking if you must

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

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When Senator Pearnel Charles Jr was assigned the water portfolio I held my breath and waited for good news. He is an attorney by profession, but let's not hold that against him. I see him as one of the Renaissance men in this Administration, and fully expected him to drag this sorry department scratching and kicking into the 21st century.

Jamaica has an abundance of hydrologic resources. There should be more than enough to meet local demand. The first problem is that it does not always rain where we want it to and when we want it to. Then, like rice, sugar cane and bananas are thirsty plants, and our immigration strategies are woefully inefficient.

We are heavily dependent on ground water, an increasing amount of which is being contaminated by the bauxite-alumina industry. When we hear of deforestation, everybody's minds run to coal-burning and the clearing of land; nobody talks of the harvesting of yam sticks and its impact on deforestation. But a 2003 study by Barker and Beckford revealed that some 63 million yam sticks are harvested each year. This has a huge impact on the maintenance of forests. The sticks used for fish pots have never been quantified.

The long and short of it is that, instead of trying to solve these institutional problems — which would create other problems in the process — Senator Charles is being creative.

The world is facing a water crisis. Climate change is throwing an increasing number of googlies each year. Those countries that do not start identifying alternatives now will be in serious trouble. Globally, we use six times as much water today as we did 100 years ago. This figure is growing by one per cent every year. Population growth and changes in diet are expected to increase water demands of agriculture by around 60 per cent by 2025.

The technologies that the minister is said to be pursuing are desalination and harvesting from the atmosphere. Desalination removes the salt from seawater, providing fresh water for consumption. Atmospheric water generators extract water from humid ambient air. Water vapour in the air can be extracted by condensation; cooling the air below its dew point and pressurising the air. Unlike dehumidifiers, this technology will render the water suitable for drinking.

Desalination is not a new technology, but whenever it was mentioned to the mentally lazy advisors we have, they fall back on the excuse that the process is expensive. “We need a lot of oil,” they say. And they are right, Minister Charles. But I know you are smart enough to remind them that we don't have a lot of oil, but we have an abundance of sun — solar energy. You could mention Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and Kuwait as just a few of many countries that are now using solar energy for water desalination. Then, of course, Israel comes to mind as the global leader in desalination. Two years ago a major solar desalination plant was constructed. At that time, the head of the company estimated that the technology in use cut desalination energy costs by more than 90 per cent and significantly reduced construction, operational and maintenance costs.

As a youngster growing up in the country I seem to recall all homeowners building a tank on their property. I am thinking, what was wrong with that? Why aren't we, as individuals, taking greater responsibility for our water needs? A farmer on five acres of land should be able to. Why do we continue to demand that the Government provide everything? What's wrong with a farmer devoting half-acre to a tank with a small catchment area? And, to the unfortunate apartment dwellers, may I introduce you to portable water generators that are high-quality drinking equipment that collect water molecules in the air by high-efficiency filters, condense the air into liquid water, and then produce water through a series of fine purification treatments.

It is my hope that Senator Pearnel Charles Jr is able to move full speed ahead with his plans without the usual amateurish, partisan roadblocks and bureaucratic bungling. Can this be a national effort?

Glenn Tucker is an educator and a sociologist. Send comments to the Observer or glenntucker2011@gmail.com.


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