Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie | Urgent action needed to address flooding
On September 25 and 26, 2022, heavy rain from the passage of Tropical Storm Ian, battered sections of Jamaica, particularly in St. Catherine and Clarendon. The National Works Agency (NWA) has calculated the full extent of the islandwide damage to be $889 million. A total of $359 million is needed to reopen the affected roads, and a further $530 million will be needed to undertake permanent works, mainly retaining walls and drainage structures
Jamaica has been spared the full effects of direct hits from storms and hurricanes so far this year and over recent years, but every heavy rainfall event seems to cause escalating damage to infrastructure, homes and businesses, and this is not a new phenomenon. There are several reasons why this happens; here are five:
1. We allow and permit development in areas of known hazards
We ignore flood maps and hazard zones, allow informal and permitted settlements along river and gully banks; we build on steep slopes and too close to the sea. Over the years, we have received funding to conduct multiple vulnerability and climate-adaptation studies, action plans have been prepared, consultations have taken place and some projects have been implemented. Yet, we still see building in places like Big Pond, Old Harbour, which often floods.
2. We rely on half measures, otherwise called ‘low-hanging fruit’ or ‘restricted fiscal space’
In 2016, Marcus Garvey Drive experienced major flooding, but road improvements in 2017 did not include drainage works. Inevitably, flooding occurred in 2020 and again in 2022. A study done by CEAC Solutions, a local consulting firm, highlighted that if the road and culverts had been addressed together in 2017 (followed by flood control works) it would have cost US$3.9 million less than it will cost to now address the continuing drainage issues. In the Big Pond case, funding from the World Bank was received to upgrade and rehabilitate the drainage system, but only some of the recommended measures were implemented; an earth berm was built- but the road was not raised, along with other recommendations. Big Pond flooded again in September 2022.
3. We do not use planning and mitigation tools adequately
There are many examples of multiple infrastructure and government led projects being approved without an environmental impact assessment (EIA) or other types of environmental assessments. Recent examples include the housing development and sewage treatment plant in Industry Cove that was built without an EIA, and the South Coast Highway Improvement Project (SCHIP), where an EIA was done for only one segment of the highway. There are also EIAs that have been done, but the mitigation measures were never adequately implemented. An example of failure to use known mitigation measures can be seen in rapidly urbanizing spaces, where an increase in hard surfaces (roofs, parking lots) and the removal of mature trees have resulted in rapid run-offs and flooding.
4. We still allow the destruction of natural assets which we need to build resilience
Another contributor to the flooding problem in Jamaica is the widescale removal and destruction of wetlands, which play an important role in flood control. The Forestry’s Land Use Assessment for the period 1998 and 2013 found that mangroves and swamps had depleted by some 98 per cent in Jamaica. This was driven primarily by coastal developments, which include housing, hotels and road infrastructure. A recent example is the construction of the 2000-room Princess Hotel in the Negril Environmental Protection Area in Hanover.
5. We ignore the impact of the climate crisis
There is no denying that climate change is already affecting Jamaica. Historical trends in climate data (2015 State of Jamaica’s Climate) show an increase in daily temperatures, reduction in annual average rainfall combined with more variable rainfall, more intense hurricanes and rising sea levels. Climate projections indicate that these trends will continue and changes in rainfall patterns suggest not only drier times for Jamaica, but also greater likelihood of flooding due to short, intense periods of heavy rainfall. In general, drains have not been adequately resized or maintained to account for increased run-offs, gullies are clogged with thick growth and garbage, gully banks/walls have been removed.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Contrary to the often repeated statement that ‘poverty is the greatest threat to the environment’, a recent report prepared for the Forestry Department (Monitoring land cover change in Jamaica, Feb 2021) revealed that for the period 2000-2020, most of Jamaica’s deforestation was due to permitted (legal) activities such as housing, infrastructure and hotel developments, agriculture and bauxite mining.
A 2012 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), ‘Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation’, indicated that settlement patterns, urbanization, and changes in socioeconomic conditions have all influenced observed trends in exposure and vulnerability to climate extremes. It outlined that development practice, policy, and outcomes are critical to shaping disaster risk. High exposure and vulnerability are generally the outcome of skewed development processes, such as those associated with environmental degradation, rapid and unplanned urbanization in hazardous areas, failures of governance, and the scarcity of livelihood options for the poor. The report also emphasized that post-disaster recovery and reconstruction provide an opportunity for reducing weather and climate-related disaster risk and for improving adaptive capacity. However, when there is an emphasis on rapidly rebuilding houses, reconstructing infrastructure, and rehabilitating livelihoods in exactly the same way or in the same places, vulnerabilities are increased.
Unless and until we see a drastic improvement in our development and approval practices in Jamaica, flood events will continue.
Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie, PhD, is an environmental scientist and the CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.