State of emergency needed for drought-ridden rural communities


Wednesday, May 22, 2019

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Jamaica is the land of wood and water, it is said, and the irony is that for years we have remained a drought-ridden country with a very inefficient water distribution system. The only problem that impacts the nation more negatively than water shortage is crime. However, it is of note that the deep-rural communities in Jamaica are more adversely affected by the effects of drought than those of crime; hence, I am imploring the Government to declare a state of emergency and allocate the necessary resources to these drought-ridden communities which are now faced with a severe crisis resulting from the current drought.

There needs to be a systematic approach to addressing the damaging effects of drought and its resulting impact on our nation. The non-structural damage caused by drought, in contrast to natural disasters like hurricane, earthquakes and flooding, has relegated severe dry seasons to a secondary position in the scheme of natural disasters, thus the required emergency relief measures to mitigate the far-reaching effects are rarely allocated, and hardly stretch beyond the agricultural belt.

The Government needs to act more decisively and immediately to mitigate the worsening water conditions affecting the island. I welcome with open arms the decision to allocate $100 million for the trucking of water to areas affected by the current drought conditions, I also appreciate the more permanent measure outlined for the projected construction of the Rio Cobre Treatment Plant in St Catherine, which, according to recent estimates, will cost billions of dollars. This plan dates back to a time when the Portia Simpson Miller-led Administration saw the need for such an intervention, but the fiscal realities did not afford its consideration. I am happy to see that the Government has retrieved this important project now that the fiscal space has been created, thanks to the hard work and discipline of then Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips and the continuation of that effort by this current Administration.

However, despite the good intention of this project, it will in no way alleviate the suffering caused by drought in many deep-rural communities, among them several St Ann South Western areas.

It is a fact that some of the worst-affected areas are those in deep-rural communities, in which most of the residents are farmers and, hence, these people are totally dependent on water for the sustenance of their livelihood. We all know that many of these farmers live from hand to mouth, and therefore are in no position to withstand even one period of drought. Many face starvation and will not be able to re-establish their farms after a bout of the severe dry spell.

We are, at this time, once again facing a devastating drought that is now affecting the entire island, and reports from farmers in these deep-rural communities point to low crop yield, total crop loss, and loss of livestock due to water shortage and low rainfall crippling households and shutting down schools and other institutions. It has to be noted that many of these areas are totally dependent on rainwater as there is no potable or irrigation water systems afforded to them, and so an immediate response is urgently needed to remedy this serious crisis.

We are seeing longer months of drought which at times lasts for upwards of six months, and this is compounded by the reduction in rainfall during our rainy months. These changes are signs from nature. When we look at how we handle and dispose of our waste, the destruction of our watersheds, contamination of our aquifers and other underground water sources, oftentimes by deforestation, mining and other quarrying activities, it is time to take emergency action to quell these detrimental practices.

Alleviating the far-reaching and devastating impact of climate change now necessitates the need for a comprehensive national water policy for drought mitigation in which a platform must be developed to quickly get to those who are impacted the most. If nothing is done now, the magnitude of this problem will only increase and therefore we as a country must be more strident about our environmental practices and Government needs to be more preemptive in the handling of drought, as, indeed, it is a natural disaster with far-reaching consequences.

In times of drought there are drastic increases in the market prices of vegetable and other ground provisions, which is as a direct result of the shortage to consumers, also in direct correlation to our local products. Also, our products for export face a similar decline, thus decreasing our well-needed foreign exchange.

Additionally, and of significant importance, the hygiene of our citizens and the health safety of our country have to be placed at the forefront to mitigate against disease outbreaks.

Reducing the country's vulnerability to the effects of climate change and improving our water resources cannot only be an environmental objective, but must also be a social and economic opportunity. Hence, the development of a comprehensive national water policy, with a drought classification and response mechanism imbedded, is an absolute imperative. Until this is done we are beseeching the Government to decree a state of emergency for these rural communities that are being strangled by lack of water, and allocate and disburse, with immediate effect, the requisite resources through the relevant authorities to ease the devastating effects wreaked on rural folk as a result of this worsening natural disaster we call drought.

Valenton Wint is a businessman and People's National Party caretaker/candidate for St Ann South Western.

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