Mon | Mar 4, 2024

NWC US$470m drought plan

Published:Sunday | December 3, 2023 | 12:07 AMSteven Jackson - Senior Business Reporter
NWC work crews clear silt from the Hope River Aqueduct that channels water to the Mona Reservoir operated by National Water Commission, on November 18, 2023.
NWC work crews clear silt from the Hope River Aqueduct that channels water to the Mona Reservoir operated by National Water Commission, on November 18, 2023.

A National Water Commission crew conducts pressure tests and patches leaks in Rose Town, Kingston on October 21, 2023.
A National Water Commission crew conducts pressure tests and patches leaks in Rose Town, Kingston on October 21, 2023.
A National Water Commission truck.
A National Water Commission truck.
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The record summer heat was met with empty taps for Jamaican consumers. National Water Commission, NWC, plans to embark on a series of projects over the long term to relieve drought conditions, but there may also be an ancient solution that saves...

The record summer heat was met with empty taps for Jamaican consumers.

National Water Commission, NWC, plans to embark on a series of projects over the long term to relieve drought conditions, but there may also be an ancient solution that saves water for a rainy day.

“All those projects and programmes have an estimated capital requirement of US$469 million. So you can imagine that money is significant; and we will not have it all at once, but we are working to source it,” said NWC Vice-President for Enterprise Development and Performance Monitoring, Glaister Cunningham, at a seminar staged by the Office of Utilities Regulation, OUR, which regulates the water utility.

Drought is a period of prolonged dry weather lasting beyond a month. The panel focused on hydrological drought, which refers to reduced water in rivers, lakes, and aquifers.

The largest project in NWC’s capital programme includes reducing water that doesn’t get billed, otherwise called non-revenue water. That is because reducing those losses could double the available water flowing to taps at businesses and households.

Only about one-third of piped water gets billed. The majority of the commodity gets lost in transit due to leaks or theft along pipelines.

“The NWC is running at 60 to 70 per cent water loss. You can imagine what that does to the bottom line of any company,” said Cunningham.

The project to reduce non-revenue water requires investment of US$303 million. Cunningham said that were the NWC to reduce its water waste by half then it would save billions.

“The projections indicate that if we can bring losses down to 30 per cent it could be accumulated, saving of $10.6 billion a year, not just for us but Jamaica as a whole,” he added.

That figure equates to around 20 per cent of NWC annual revenue, which is estimated to hit $53.2 billion for this fiscal year ending March 2024, up from $45.7 billion a year earlier. The figure would also be several times that of the net surplus of the NWC. The water utility expects to make a surplus of US$2.4 billion and that tax credits would boost that even further to a net surplus of $3.9 billion for the fiscal year.

Over the next five years, the NWC plans to reduce non-revenue water by half, based on its budget published in the Jamaica Public Bodies , which is produced annually by the Ministry of Finance.

Other projects within the US$469 million programme include US$57 million for Martha Brae to Montego Bay replacement infrastructure, US$41 million for a pipeline from Rusea’s to Orange Bay in Hanover, a US$26 million upgrade of the pipeline from Grant Level Treatment Plant to West Retreat Storage tank, US$18 million expansion of Martha Brae treatment plant in Trelawny, US$20 million expansion of the Great River Water Treatment Plant on the St James border, and a US$4 million rehabilitation of the Yallahs raw water pipeline in St Thomas.

These projects, however, avoid an academic solution that calls for water banking or saving water for a rainy day, according to Professor Mark Harris, who also made a presentation at the OUR forum.

It would involve collecting run-off water from Jamaica’s largest catchment area in the John Crow Mountains by way of constructing a qanat, that is, a sloping tunnel that channels water off a hill to communities below.

According to Harris, it would require digging an underground pathway for several miles to connect to the elevated aquifer in the mountains. It would thereby create a pathway for the water to run off to the surface by way of gravity.

“We tunnel through the Blue Mountain 50 to 80 miles towards the aquifer in the John Crow Mountains,” said Harris, professor of environmental chemistry and applied climatology in the Department of Biology, Chemistry and Environmental Science at Northern Caribbean University. “That will drop the water table in both aquifers so that the runoff will drop down into the aquifer rather than flowing over land. And that goes to places that need water like western Jamaica, central Jamaica, Kingston, and St Andrew. That’s my proposition,” he said.

The largest water sources in Jamaica are the Black River in St Elizabeth, Rio Grande in Portland, and Rio Bueno in Trelawny, in that order, according to information in Harrison’s seminar presentation. He noted that while about 80 per cent of the flows from Black River and Rio Bueno are captured, about 30 per cent of the flow from Rio Grande is captured in the John Crow Mountains, with the balance running off.

“We can bleed the aquifer from below and the runoff will go back into the aquifer,” Harris added. “Perennial recharge – that is what the John Crow Mountains are. It never goes dry because it is responding to the intense rains in the area,” he said.

The longest qanat spans 120 miles in Iran and was built about 3,000 years ago. Harris acknowledged that qanats have taken “decades to build in the past”, but said that today, modern drilling technology would cut that time dramatically.

The Mona reservoir, which holds 808.5 million gallons of water and Hermitage Dam, which holds 393.5 million gallons, are again at full capacity but earlier in the year, Mona, in particular, was low at around 38 per cent capacity.

From February to September, the NWC focused on reactivating underground wells in Havendale, Beverly Hills, and Cavaliers in Kingston. In St Catherine, the utility activated wells in Greendale, Government Park. And it siphoned an additional two million gallons per day of supplies from the Rio Cobre conveyance scheme; night lockoffs or reductions in pressure to build up storage, and removing illegal connections from the Yallahs Pipeline.

Earlier in the year, the NWC increased its trucking fleet from 19 to 70, many of which are outsourced truckers. The water utility also procured 1,200 water tanks to create additional storage across the island.

steven.jackson@gleanerjm.com