Jamaica's Water Insecurity

By Suzette A. Haughton, 2002 Americas Project fellow from Jamaica

Water security is inextricably linked to human survival, health, and economic and social well-being. Water scarcity in Jamaica has brought serious development and social challenges. A recent United Nations Development Programme report projected that by 2025, water scarcity will affect 1.8 billion people globally. Currently, 1.1 billion people in developing countries lack adequate access to water. Moreover, food insecurity driven by water scarcity is negatively impacting developing countries, and Jamaica is no exception.

Water access in Jamaica is linked to power, inequality and poverty. Seventy-one percent of Jamaica’s 2.7 million people have piped water, with 5.7 percent of residents relying on water from rivers and 3.1 depending on pond water. One-third of Jamaica’s poorest households rely on standpipes to obtain water, and 30 percent of the poorest households obtain untreated water from sources such as rivers. On average, Jamaicans spend 2.1 percent of their income on water services. Yet the poorest households spend 3.2 percent of their income on water, compared to the richest households spending only 1.8 percent.

Furthermore, climate change impacts the quality and quantity of water. The El Niño effect, the phenomena that warms waters in the Pacific Ocean, is real. The oscillation of the ocean-atmosphere system is having important consequences for weather around the world. Consequently, Jamaica has experienced changes in weather conditions and drier, warmer temperatures. Low rainfall and drought conditions have curtailed water availability for almost a decade. This is critical for Jamaica, which is heavily rainfall dependent due to lack of proper water storage infrastructure. In the Kingston and St. Andrew parishes, for example, scheduled water lock offs in recent months have curtailed domestic activities in residential homes, businesses and educational institutions. This negatively impacted the 94.2 percent of the population in those parishes who rely on pipe or tap water for consumption, domestic chores and their livelihoods. As water levels got critically low at Jamaica’s Mona Reservoir, the National Water Commission imposed stiffer restrictions, providing water every two days to its St. Andrew customers and for merely a few hours on the serviceable days.

Water distribution in Jamaica is uneven. During droughts and periods of maximum rainfall, some communities suffer severe water shortages while others enjoy water in abundance. Despite this distribution challenge, the government estimates the current water shortfall at 126 million cubic meters per year (MCM/yr). This shortfall reflects 73 MCM/yr for agricultural purposes and 53 MCM/yr for non-agricultural uses. However, the aggregate water required for 2015 is estimated at 790 MCM/yr, of which 618 MCM/yr is needed for agricultural purposes and 172 MCM/yr is required for non-agricultural purposes.

Incremental steps and transformational changes are essential to reduce Jamaica’s risks from water insecurity. Proper water conservation, management and adaptation approaches are required to enhance social, economic, food and health sustainability. Adaptation approaches may include infrastructural enhancements such as re-laying pipes to contain leaks and building dams and wells for additional water storage. As it stands, groundwater contamination has rendered some existing wells unusable. Food production efficiency and drought mitigation practices must also be developed. Financial resources are critical to develop the infrastructure development projects needed to ensure water security. However, given the existing International Monetary Fund austerity measures, there is not much fiscal space for the country to undertake these much needed projects.

Many approaches and pathways exist for Jamaica to obtain a sustainable future. There should be mitigation and adaptation strategies that involve individual responsibility, inter-sectoral collaboration at the national level, regional cooperation through the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), capacity-driven mechanisms and external collaboration with foreign states.

Given the financial challenges, Jamaica’s attainable goal should be the implementation of incremental sustainable water management strategies. It should embark on a public education strategy that involves mandatory water conservation practices for residents and communities.  Responsible water usage and conservation methods may reduce the need for new and increased water sources.

Voices of the Americas is a space for Americas Project fellows to share their insights into events unfolding in their home countries and in the region as a whole. The fellows' essays will also focus on economic development, institution building, democracy and the rule of law.

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