Kingston, Jamaica, April 26 (IPS) — It will take billions of dollars and many years to solve a growing problem that has placed Jamaica in the unlikely class of countries with the most water scarcity in the world due to the unavailability of potable water.
The worsening water crisis in the metropolis of Kingston and St. Andrew (KMA) leads to months of rationing in some years. The blockages are exacerbated by drought, broken pumps and the crumbling pipelines that make up the water distribution system. At the same time, more than 104.3 million cubic meters of water, or about 60 percent of the available resource, remained unusable due to pollution in the aquifers beneath the capital.
A 2020 study, Groundwater Availability and Security in the Kingston Basin, found that high nitrates in the city’s main aquifer made the water useless for domestic purposes. The study conducted by researchers from the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus’ Departments of Chemistry and Geology and Geography, pointed to wastewater contamination from the septic and absorption wells that litter the city’s landscape and saline intrusion from across – pumps as the cause of the pollution.
Lead researcher Arpita Mandal told IPS via email that the two-year study, which began in 2018, showed no “significant change” in chloride and nitrate levels over the period, noting, “The historical data is patchy, but chloride and nitrate levels have always been high above the allowable limits”.
The report concluded that there is an urgent need to address the ongoing contamination of the Kingston Basin, but Debbie-Ann Gordon Smith, the lead chemist in the study, noted that the cleaning process would be extremely long and costly.
According to the study, many of the wells in KSA have been decommissioned because between 50 and 80 percent of the effluent from absorption wells and septic tanks goes directly into the ground. The report said the same was true for many Caribbean islands, including Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, and Grenada.
Water Resources Authority (WRA) director Peter Clarke pointed to concerns about the quality and quantity of water in KSA’s aquifers and pointed to the existence of several working wells in use by companies operating the treat water to potable standards for industrial use.
He said that while pollution from “200-year latrines” (in KSA) remains a concern, “the surfacing of parking garages and roofs” means less water is available to replenish the aquifer. To maintain the continued viability of the aquifer, the WRA, Jamaica’s water management and regulatory agency, is preparing to impose a moratorium on new wells.
Clarke is convinced that the island will have sufficient water and reserves of the precious liquid for decades to come. However, he noted that in the case of Jamaica, it is distribution and access that makes water a scarce resource in some areas. “It’s where the people are, where water is distributed and access to the water is important,” he said.
In 2015, the state’s national distribution agency, the National Water Commission (NWC), announced a comprehensive $15 million program to refurbish Kingston’s aging distribution network. The program included remediation and rehabilitation of old wells, decommissioning of old sewage treatment plants and restoration of water storage facilities.
In doing so, the water company repaired 40,000 leaks, which at the time reportedly cost the city 50 percent of the drinking water produced. They also replaced the aging pipelines installed before the country’s independence in 1962. The program continues with the replacement and installation of hundreds of miles of pipelines.
Clarke explained that Jamaica’s groundwater supply is three to four times greater than that which runs through the island’s 120 rivers and their stream networks to the sea, providing 85 percent of drinking water needs. Jamaica uses about 25 percent of its available groundwater resources and 11 percent of its accessible surface water.
To meet growing demand in the RMA, Clarke said, the Department of Economic Growth and Employment is considering a new treatment plant in St. Catherine as one of its planned and existing solutions. In 2016, an artificial groundwater replenishment system was built at a cost of just over 1 billion Jamaican dollars, or US$133 million, on 68 acres (27.5 hectares) of what was once reedland in Innswood, St. Catherine, to replenish the wells. supplying the most populated areas of the metropolis and surrounding areas.
The system is currently injecting an additional five million liters of drinking water per day to supplement the withdrawals from the supply wells. The Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development announced last month that it is considering similar systems to store excess water for use in times of drought and to reduce evaporation from surface systems such as reservoirs and dams in other water-poor areas of the island.
Both Gordon Smith and Mandal agree that water shortages in Kingston are exacerbated by climate variability, increasing urbanization and the inadequate management of existing resources. In recent years, a construction boom in the KMA has transformed the KMA, putting pressure on the available water supply.
The UWI Climate Research Group has warned of elevated temperatures and extreme rainfall and drought. Based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 6th Assessment Report (AR6), the group warned Caribbean governments to brace for longer and more intense droughts and higher temperatures that will affect food production and water supplies, among other things.
In the case of the KSA, the NWC has continued to build and improve the city’s sewage treatment capacity in the affected areas to end pollution of the aquifer by wastewater and wastewater. Hopefully, the aquifer will flush itself out when the work is done.
“Jamaica is not short of water,” Clark said. “It’s a distribution problem”.
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