Jamaica’s rivers and gullies are suffering from abuse

Today is World Rivers Day. It is observed on the fourth Sunday in September every year, I have learned. It was founded by a Canadian, Mark Angelo, a long-time river advocate who spoke at the United Nations in 2005 as part of its Water for Life campaign.

Jamaican rivers are very different, of course, from the mighty rivers of British Columbia. They may disappear for months, even years due to drought (like the Yallahs River), or transform into unruly torrents during heavy rains, breaking their banks and creating chaos. Some rivers, especially those adjoining mangrove swamps, seem to remain constant, moving sometimes dark and sluggish and, at times, crystalline.

This year’s World Rivers Day theme is urban waterways. This is not a happy topic for Jamaica. In Kingston, Montego Bay and even smaller coastal towns, our waterways are our gullies. Often festooned with garbage, they are ugly spaces where anything or anyone might be lurking. We look at them quickly as we drive over them, then turn our eyes away.

In 2016, Jamaica Environment Trust published a report entitled “Garbage and the Gully,” specifically focusing on the heavily polluted South Gully in Montego Bay. They recommended a slate of actions, including regular cleaning and garbage collection, public education targeting local businesses communities and (for heaven’s sake!) enforcement of environmental laws, among others. JET partnered with the Tourism Enhancement Fund, Montego Bay Marine Park and Yaadie Environmental Conservationists to design, construct and test a Debris Containment Boom at the mouth of the South Gully as part of the 2014/15 Clean Coasts Project. Each time it was cleared, approximately 50 – 100 pounds of garbage was removed (mostly plastic bags and plastic bottles). But there were some serious issues with managing and maintaining it, unfortunately – due to the volume and content of the garbage it collected. It was too labour intensive and costly to continue.

The Debris Containment Boom at the mouth of the South Gully in Montego Bay. (Photo: JET)

A 2010 study estimated that approximately 25 – 30 percent of Jamaica’s garbage is improperly disposed of. Where does it end up? Very often, in our gullies, drains and rivers, which empty into the sea. No less than sixteen gullies empty into Kingston Harbour. After heavy rains, hundreds of plastic bottles bob around in the harbor, washed down with all kinds of other debris (including bags of human waste – sorry!) from the gullies into the long-suffering harbour.

Who maintains and cleans gullies? I believe it is the Ministry of Local Government. In March this year, Finance Minister Nigel Clarke announced a J$320 million gully cleaning project for Kingston called the “Gully Intervention Programme.” It would have involved the training of community members as environmental wardens, among other things. Not long after the announcement we learned that it has been delayed, due to budgetary constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the head of the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA) – who looks increasingly strained recently – observed in a recent television interview that the planned 100 new garbage trucks that were to arrive will not be here any time soon, as there is now no money for them.

There is no doubt that gullies are in serious need of maintenance, however. For several years now, the good people of Harbour Heights in Harbour View have been living in fear, with their homes teetering on the edge of a gully whose walls have been gradually collapsing No one seemed to want to take responsibility, despite the residents’ vigorous lobbying and media interviews. Earlier this year, funds were promised and China Harbour Engineering Corporation (CHEC) was to repair the broken gully walls as part of the South Coast Highway Project. I wonder if the work has taken place yet. Heavy rains have fallen, since.

Outside urban areas, our rivers are in trouble across the island; and not only because they are often used as garbage dumps, like the gullies. They are used and abused.

Here are a few examples:

I wrote recently for Global Voices about the latest in a series of persistent pollution episodes at the Rio Cobre in St. Catherine. This river, flowing through the picturesque Bog Walk Gorge, has been regularly abused by a nearby bauxite company, Windalco. The most recent incident resulted in a major fish kill, depriving residents of food, income – and fresh water for a while, besides affecting their health. The water was so polluted with toxic chemicals that the National Water Commission had to shut down its plant for several days. Is the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) going to take the company to court again (it has a case coming up in October)?

In this November 2020 photo, Kemar King is shovelling away sand and stones that submerged his sister’s car in Nine Miles, St Andrew, after the Chalky River dumped tons of silt on the community. (Jamaica Gleaner)

Our rivers are struggling with other problems besides pollution. Climate change is digging itself deeper into our landscapes, made worse by environmentally harmful human activities that are often improperly monitored and regulated. It is generally the “poor people” who suffer from the impacts.

There is no more painful example than the situation of Bull Bay, a low-income community on the outskirts of Kingston. In a column in the Jamaica Gleaner two weeks ago, JET’s CEO Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie described the area as a “sacrificial zone.” Quarrying for gypsum (for the nearby Caribbean Cement Company) in the hills above the communities of Nine, Ten and Eleven Miles has greatly expanded in recent years – one whole hillside has disappeared. Again, community members have been vocal, speaking many times about their plight. They know the environment they live in is highly vulnerable and unstable, especially with the impact of climate change. They live in fear of storms, or even heavy rain, which brings down tons of silt, sand and stones from the hills. During recent downpours caused by tropical storms, residents were seen frantically trying to clear debris from the river so that it did not overflow and swamp their homes. Again, who is responsible? Who cares?

Screen shot from a CVM TV report from Parnassus, Clarendon, where sand mining in the Rio Minho has caused land erosion and landslides.

One more issue that never seems to go away for our rivers is sand mining – whether illegal or illegal. Extractive industries of various kinds have devastated our landscape and ecosystems. The rural community of Parnassus in Clarendon is facing tremendous erosion and losing valuable agricultural land, which is simply collapsing. Sand mining in the Rio Minho has caused the river to change its natural way of flowing. The company involved says it is properly licensed, adding that the sand in the Rio Minho has run out – there is huge demand for sand in the ever-growing construction industry, and it is now busy digging out the banks of the river apparently, in search of it.

As for the magnificent Rio Grande in Portland – which is highly promoted as a tourist attraction, for heaven’s sake – NEPA issued enforcement notices a year ago to Agro Expo, who were in breach of their permits. Sand mining in this beautiful river has been going on for years, which is a shame.

Why can’t we leave our rivers alone? Why don’t we stop polluting and exploiting them?

Part of the waterfalls at Cane River, not far from Bull Bay. The story goes that Bob Marley used to visit there to wash his dreadlocks!

The sad thing is that Jamaicans love their rivers. They are places for recreation and “cooling out.” We love the secluded waterfalls at Cane River and Gordon Town. We enjoy the picturesque old Spanish Bridge in St. Mary, the site of many excursions and parties. I remember our son clambering over the boulders in the Wag Water, at Castleton Botanical Gardens, where we used to picnic. And then, there is the second longest and the widest river in Jamaica, Black River, which is an adventure in itself, with its towering mangrove roots and crocodiles and swamp birds.

The lovely old Spanish Bridge on the White River in St. Mary.

A special day for rivers is not going to instantly make us appreciate our rivers. But let’s love them a little more. If you live near or pass by a river, see how it is doing. Is it healthy? Is it loved? Or are there signs of abuse?

Happy World Rivers Day.

One of the many moods of the magical Salt River, Clarendon. (My photo)

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