Editorial | Heed advice on disaster preparedness
Jamaica, the experts in these matters have advised, needs to put aside around J$16 billion a year, over the long term, to be in a position to adequately respond to the natural disasters that the country increasingly faces.
The specific sum that needs to be in the kitty is a recent revelation, but the fact that something has to be done is not new. The increased frequency with which the island, as well as others in the Caribbean, has been hit by storms and floods, linked to climate change as a result of global warming, long ago placed this matter on our, and other people's, agenda. The debate now, is finding a sustainable model for building resilience against the known challenges and how it is to be financed, especially in an environment where some of the major players are sceptical about the science of global warming and less likely to offer support.
There is, in that context, no single or simple answer. Jamaica, in that regard, has to work on several fronts, efficiently and creatively using all available resources, starting with disaster prevention and mitigation. That includes doing the little things and getting them right.
A major cause of Jamaica's problem that increases its susceptibility to climate-related disaster is the poor state of its infrastructure. Our roads, drains, bridges, sewerage system, water-distribution mains and other public facilities are, by and large, poorly maintained. Many are crumbling.
That, in part, is because governments have been unable to afford the cost of maintaining infrastructure, or investing in new ones to meet the demands of demographic changes, as well as the requirements of a modern society. That inability, though, isn't some natural phenomenon that merely appeared. It is the consequence of decades of poor economic policies that generated a high national debt, anaemic growth, and, therefore, little or no surpluses for governments to invest in adequate infrastructure.
In that sense, the economic reforms and fiscal discipline of recent years, leading to macroeconomic stability, is a critical, if not always immediately obvious, element of the process of building resilience against natural disasters. The more the economy grows, the more taxes the government collects and the greater its ability to invest, taking into account the competing demands for limited resources, in enhanced infrastructure.
The current situation, perhaps, highlights the possibilities. Under Jamaica's current US$1.7-billion standby agreement with the International Monetary Fund, the Government is obligated to achieve a primary surplus of seven per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) as part of the strategy to pay down the debt. That ratio is half a percentage point lower than when Jamaica first entered into an agreement with the Fund in 2013 and the country's debt was over 140 per cent of GDP. At the end of the 2017-18 fiscal year, the primary balance was 7.7 per cent of GDP, or 0.7 per cent above the target.
Put another way, the Government returned a primarily surplus of nearly J$13 billion above the target, or over 80 per cent of what the experts say it needs annually for its disaster fund. In other words, fiscal prudence gives the Government options. It might have used the cash, or some of it, to accelerate debt payments, invest in infrastructure, or apply it to other priorities, including jump-starting its disaster resilience fund, various models of which are now bring analysed.
These, however, are the big-ticket items. There is much more that can be achieved relatively cheaply such as ensuring that drains are cleaned and garbage collected to minimise flooding during storms. And you can enforce regulations on where and how people build, as well as protect watersheds and coastal areas. These are small things that require will. They can deliver outsize returns.