… and still not much to celebrate

Last week a series of special days in the environmental calendar came and went almost unnoticed. Wednesday, March 21 (the traditional first day of spring) was also the International Day of Forests. March 22 was World Water Day, and Earth Hour took place between 8.30 and 9.30p.m., local time, on Saturday March 24. This year, all three special days revisited some old questions in search of new answers.

The International Day of Forests is sponsored by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It seeks to educate people about the value of forests as reserves for all forms of life, and as contributors to human health, safety and prosperity. This year’s theme, Forests and Sustainable Cities, considered the roles of urban forests.

First, they are natural air conditioners, cooling, purifying and humidifying the air around them. Second, they provide living quarters for the birds, animals and insects that make up a healthy ecosystem. And third, they improve the quality of urban life, reducing noise levels and creating pleasant, peaceful spaces to be enjoyed by residents and visitors alike. Forests near cities provide all of these services, and help to purify and store groundwater while preventing flooding and soil erosion.

Conservator of Forests Marilyn Headley is very concerned about Jamaica’s “swamp forests”. More than 90% of these low-lying wooded areas, periodically flooded by fresh water, have been wiped out in the last 15 years “as a result of the construction of hotels and other infrastructure”. Their value as fresh water reservoirs, flood preventers and habitat for fish and wildlife has been lost, and it’s unlikely that the new Forest Conservation Plan can bring them back.

UN Water chose “Nature for Water” as this year’s theme for World Water Day. The agency suggests that the key to rebalancing the growing demand for fresh water with the static (or decreasing) supply is not more of the mechanical tinkering that created the mess, but rather a return to a more natural system in which far less was wasted.

Dr. Wayne Henry, director general of the Planning Institute of Jamaica, recently noted that a review of economic indicators showed 25% of the country’s water management areas “severely degraded” and nearly a third of fresh water sources too polluted for drinking or swimming. Poor watershed management, according to Dr. Henry, is costing Jamaica one or two percent of economic growth each year.

At the heart of any natural water supply system is rain and our ability to store it for future use—in the ground, in a wetland, in a farm pond, in a reservoir or in a household cistern. Falling rain should sink into the ground and fill our underground reservoirs. Deforested hillsides and built-up grasslands and flood plains let too much rain run off, flooding roads and towns, carrying a load of dirt and debris into the sea, and setting us up for drought to come.

Rainwater harvesting is already the law in Barbados, St. Lucia, Turks & Caicos and Bermuda. It would make sense to include it as a requirement of Jamaica’s new building code. Any increase in construction coast would be less than the cost and inconvenience of chronic water shortages.

On Saturday March 24, a ripple of darkness ran around the earth. Between 8.30 and 9.30 p.m. local time, more than a billion people in more than 180 countries (including Jamaica) switched off their lights and other electrical gadgets as part of Earth Hour, the world’s biggest environmental event. This year’s theme, “connect2earth”, is focused on biodiversity. The organizers remind us “People are just one part of Earth’s vast web of life. Let’s get back in touch with our roots and nurture nature by helping to conserve wildlife and their habitats.”

All of these special days are meant to remind us that if we take care of the world we live in, it can go on taking care of us. It worked well before we messed it up. We can’t put our environment back the way it was, but we can make it better and we will all win.