The COVID-19 lockdown is well into its second month with no real end in sight. The hurricane season is just around the corner and it’s forecast to be a bad one. The weather is hot and dry, and it’s been that way for long enough to be a real problem for anyone trying to grow crops.
We were warned. Early this year the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology’s regular bulletin predicted a normal shift to the usual dry season, with fewer heavy rain days through February and higher than average temperatures. The organization suggested a “drought watch” for Jamaica in March-May. A drought watch recognizes the possibility that drought may develop and urges that temperature and rainfall be closely watched.
The Institute’s latest Climate Newsletter extends the forecast. At the end of March, though eastern Jamaica was still “about normal” in terms of rainfall and soil moisture, the western part of the country was “severely dry”. In some areas, “meteorological drought” was already established.
Meteorological drought is defined as a prolonged period of less than average rainfall. It is followed by hydrological drought, as ground water sources and reservoirs shrink, and agricultural drought, as soil becomes too dry to nourish crops and pastures.
Looking into the early summer (May, June and July) the Institute expects Jamaica to continue hotter than usual, with below-average rainfall. Jamaica’s Met Service has produced its own version of these forecasts, with much the same conclusions:
“During this period Jamaica will transition from the early wet season in May to midsummer dry period in July. Further water deficits are likely across sections of the island which have experienced Meteorological Drought conditions in recent months. With temperatures expected to remain above-normal as summer approaches, the likelihood of heat stress-related impacts also increases.”
This is bad news for the nation’s farmers, especially those in the southwestern “breadbasket” region. This should have been a good year. The tourism sector finally grasped the idea that we would all prosper if resorts and restaurants bought more of their food from local producers. Farmers got technical and marketing assistance, and credit for seed and fertilizer. Fields were planted, and then it didn’t rain.
In late December Senator Pearnel Charles Jr., minister without portfolio in charge of water, met the possibility of a bad summer head-on. The centerpiece of the plan for rural areas appeared to be a major trucking operation, described as “the most practical short-term method” of drought relief. Recently an NWC spokesman noted that trucking of water has to be ramped up to meet the extra sanitary requirements of COVID-19. “We must stress that even though we truck water, we have to assess where the trucks go. Water is a limited resource, so we have to prioritise,”
This plan may avoid some of the worst hardships of a water shortage but it is not a drought management plan. It does not address the waste that leads to water shortages in the first place. Bad land management and poor development planning let too much rainfall escape into the sea without ever being used. Also, there is very little attempt to recover and recycle waste water that could be put to good use with only minor treatment. Repaired pipes and organized water trucks won’t work for long if there is nothing to put in them.
And the plan doesn’t address managing a surplus when it does rain again. It’s worth noting that the CIMH preliminary forecast for August through October – the fat end of the hurricane season – calls for the whole of the northern Caribbean including Jamaica to be considerably wetter than average. Without some real management of our water resources, we could be bouncing back and forth from flood to drought for years to come.