Tue | Sep 26, 2017

Editorial | Phillips on to something for drainage overhaul

Published:Friday | May 19, 2017 | 5:00 AM

Andrew Holness, the prime minister, and Peter Phillips, the leader of the Opposition, are agreed that weather events, like the rains that pounded Jamaica this week, are likely to occur with greater frequency and intensity going forward. They share a belief in climate change and the science behind it.

They are also agreed that if nothing changes, large swathes of Jamaica will again be flooded, infrastructure damaged or destroyed, people's lives disrupted, and Government called upon, as it will have to do now, to allocate huge chunks of already limited resources for rehabilitation projects.

Or, as Mr Holness put it on Wednesday as he toured flooded communities, his administration will revisit its Budget to determine in what area it may have to "reallocate [or] postpone expenditure because this (the rehabilitation exercise) is now a priority". This, as Mr Holness understands, is merely the short-term response to an immediate problem.

Policymakers know the phenomena that give rise to such catastrophes will recur. The larger issue, therefore, is how to prevent, and/or limit, the effects of these crises, which cost billions of dollars in infrastructure repair, lost economic activity, and the growth they weaken.

 

POOR INFRASTRUCTURE UPKEEP

 

There is coincidence between Messrs Holness and Dr Phillips, as this newspaper has argued, that this week's floods, and recent similar events, in part represent the failure of the country's infrastructure, in particular its drainage systems, to cope with the run-off. Infrastructure has not kept pace with development, especially in housing. Further, existing ones have not been properly maintained.

This deficit, as Mr Holness acknowledged, is exacerbated by the failure of Jamaican governments to enforce zoning laws, including being lax in moving against informal communities, many of which lack basic infrastructure, but, by some estimates, are the homes for up to a third of Jamaicans. Indeed, many of the flood-hit communities were near rivers that overflowed their banks. We, therefore, agree with Mr Holness that informal settlements can't be allowed to continue, as well as note Dr Phillips' promise that dealing with the problem will be a policy priority for a future People's National Party (PNP) administration.

That, however, is not a short-term fix. Of greater urgency, we feel, is the matter of drainage, for which, according to Mr Holness, there is already a master plan awaiting implementation. The delay, we suspect, is because of the Government's inability to finance such a large-scale undertaking.

It is not a project that, on the evidence, can any longer be delayed, even if priorities have to be established and creative means found to finance the schemes. In this regard, we believe that the idea proposed by Dr Phillips, which has echoes of arrangements used to advance other public-enterprise ventures, is worthy of serious exploration and embrace.

The PNP leader has called for an Office of National Reconstruction (ONR), with technical staff, bolstered by civil society and political bipartisan oversight, to undertake the necessary reconstruction. It is that same office, we expect, which would lead Dr Phillips' proposed "review of the redesign of the national drainage system" - work that ought to be far advanced, if not complete, given Mr Holness' declaration about the existence of a drainage master plan.

The ONR, however, should have a broader mandate, including identifying means of funding for the project(s) as well as helping in the negotiation of financing arrangements and project implementation contracts.