The policy makers at the Housing Agency of Jamaica (HAJ) clearly didn’t go to either Sunday or Sabbath school. Or if they did, they weren’t there the week the other children were learning the chorus about wise and foolish builders:
The wise man built his house upon the rock
And the rain came tumbling down
And the floods went up
And the house on the rock stood firm.
The foolish man built his house upon the sand
And the rain came tumbling down
And the floods went up
And the house on the sand went ‘splash’!
This catchy children’s song is based on the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 7:24 (New Living Translation): “Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock”. In this non-sexist translation, the ‘man’ of the King James Version, whether wise or foolish, becomes the gender-neutral ‘person’. A very wise move.
The HAJ’s reckless policy of converting protected lands into house spots is a classic example of building on sand. This practice is not at all sustainable. It’s short-term thinking at its worst. In fact, the ‘solutions’ the HAJ keeps fabricating to fix the housing shortage in the Kingston metropolitan area often create new problems. An excellent example is the ‘development’ of Long Mountain. First it was the Long Mountain Country Club. Now it’s the whole hillside down from the Country Club and right across from the Mona reservoir that’s at risk.
Long Mountain goes ‘splash’
A 2000 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Long Mountain Country Club clearly outlined the potential threats to the reservoir. There was the risk of an estimated 50% increase in surface runoff from the site. The report warned that if the runoff got into the reservoir it could “negatively impact the water quality.” The assessment also underscored the importance of protecting the four wells at the foot of Long Mountain which could be contaminated by the development.
The report documented the risk of soil erosion as a result of “removing vegetative cover to facilitate construction.” It noted that “a build up of sediment reduces the capacity of the reservoir and could also clog pipes and drainage outlets, increasing the maintenance cost of the reservoir to the National Water Commission”. The new development (Mona Estate, Section One) that is now being pushed by The Housing Agency of Jamaica was also the subject of that 2000 environmental impact assessment.
Again, the risk to the reservoir was highlighted: “Additional storm water will be discharged into existing drainage channels to increase erosion on the lower slopes facing the reservoir, particularly where the extensively fractured and fragmented rock is loosely attached to the fine grain matrix and therefore, highly erodible. From field observations, there are a number of drainage channels on the lower slope that are capable of carrying storm water laden with sediments directly into the reservoir during periods of high rainfall.”
Conflict of interest
That warning about loose rocks running into the reservoir is a reminder that it’s not only sand that’s an unstable foundation for building. Not all rock stands firm. Despite all of the warnings in that 2000 EIA, both the Ministry of Housing and the developer, Robert Cartade, simply disregarded the report. With the complicity of the Cabinet, led by former Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, protected lands were degraded to make way for the Country Club.
As part of the application process for a permit for the proposed Mona Estate development, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) asked the Housing Agency of Jamaica (the developer) to commission and pay for a new Environmental Impact Assessment. I do understand that the cost of the assessment must be borne by the applicant. But, surely, it would be better for NEPA to manage the process rather than the developer. This would avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest: He who pays the piper calls the tune.
This issue was highlighted at a meeting convened last Wednesday by the HAJ to present to the public the EIA prepared by EPN Consultants Ltd. In response to questions about the assessment, Barrington Brown, a civil engineer at EPN Consultants, referred more than once to the HAJ proposal in the first person: ‘we’ and ‘our’ development. I suggested that this was a Freudian slip signifying collusion of the consultants with the HAJ. I was rebuked by the self-important Chairman of the proceedings, Howard Mitchell, for speaking out of turn. But it was worth it.
‘Wa gone bad a morning’
The Housing Agency of Jamaica is on a very slippery slope. It appears to be operating on the ‘principle’ that ‘wa gone bad a morning cyaan come good a evening’. The latest EIA makes it absolutely clear that “the proposed development site is zoned for public open space in the 1966 Confirmed Kingston Development Order for Kingston while in the emerging Kingston and St. Andrew Development Order, 2008, the proposed zoning is public open space/conservation”.
But the two-faced assessment goes on to say that “there has been in the past a relaxation of the zoning restriction”. So because there have been breaches in the past we should just keep on turning conservation areas into housing! The HAJ insists that it’s only 20 acres that are to be captured this time and 200 acres will remain as public open space.
A promise is a comfort to a fool. Soon it will be another 20 and another 20 until the whole of Long Mountain overlooking the reservoir will be one big ‘development’. Those of us who want to protect the environment for ourselves and future generations must appeal to Prime Minister Simpson Miller and her Cabinet to recapture the lands that were so carelessly given to the HAJ. Or we will all drown when the rain comes tumbling down and the floods go up.