Jamaica’s Drought Tool Could Turn the Table on Climate Change

By Zadie Neufville

The following article was published by IPS on  January 13, 2016  
On a very dry November 2013, Jamaica’s Meteorological Service made its first official drought forecast when the newly developed Climate Predictability Tool (CPT) was used to predict a high probability of below average rainfall in the coming three months.

By February, the agency had officially declared a drought in the eastern and central parishes of the island based on the forecasts. July’s predictions indicated that drought conditions would continue until at least September.


Parched cracked ground

Said to be the island’s worst in 30 years, the 2014 drought saw Jamaica’s eastern parishes averaging rainfall of between 2 and 12 per cent, well below normal levels. Agricultural data for the period shows that production fell by more than 30 per cent over 2013 and estimates are that losses due to crop failures and wild fires amounted to one billion dollars.

Jamaica’s agricultural sector accounts for roughly seven per cent of the island’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employs about 20 per cent of its workforce.

The Met Service’s, Glenroy Brown told IPS, “The CPT was the main tool used by our Minister (of Water, Land, Environment & Climate Change) Robert Pickersgill throughout 2015 to advise the nation on the status of drought across the island .”

It was also used but the National Water Commission (NWC) to guide its implementation of island-wide water restrictions.

A technician with Jamaica’s Met Service, Brown designed and implemented the tool in collaboration with Simon Mason, a climate scientist from Columbia University’s International Research Institute (IRI) for Climate and Society with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

“The tool provides a Windows package for constructing a seasonal climate drought forecast model, producing forecasts with updated rainfall and sea surface temperature data,” he explained.

The innovation was one of the first steps in building resilience under Jamaica’s national climate policy. It provides drought-monitoring forecasts that allows farmers to plan their planting around dry periods and has been “tailored for producing seasonal climate forecasts from a general circulation model (GCM), or for producing forecasts using fields of sea-surface temperatures,” Brown said.

Farmers in the Hills above Kingston depend on rainwater

Farmers in the Hills above Kingston depend on rainwater. Most small farms on the island are rain-fed.

The tool combines a number of applications including Google Earth and localised GIS maps, to generate one to five day forecasts that are country and location specific. The information is broken down and further simplified by way of colour-coded information and text messages for the not so tech-savvy user.

The tool designed by Brown and Mason also incorporated IRI’s own CPT (designed by Mason) that was already being used by Caribbean countries with small meteorological services and limited resources, to produce their own up-to-date seasonal climate forecasts. The new tool combined data on recent rainfall and rainfall predictions to provide a forecast that focused specifically on drought.

“It was important for us to design a system that addressed Jamaica’s needs upfront, but that would also be suitable for the rest of the region,” Mason noted.

The scientists explained, “Because impact of a drought is based on the duration of the rainfall” and not only the amount of rainfall, looking forward is not enough to predict droughts because of factors related to accumulation and intensification.

“What we’re doing is essentially putting a standard three-month rainfall forecast in context with recent rainfall measurements,” Mason, told USAID’s publication Frontlines last May. He noted that if below-normal rainfall activity was recorded during an unusually dry period, indications were there was a “fairly serious drought” ahead.

Sheldon Scott from Jamaica’s Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) told IPS that farmers who used the SMS information were able to avoid the worse effects of the drought.

“The impacts were visible in relation to farmers who used the information and others who didn’t, because those who did were able to manage the mitigating factors more effectively,” he said.

During the period, more than 500 farmers received text alerts and about 700,000 bulletins were sent to agricultural extension officers.

Among the farmers who signed up for text messaging service, Melonie Risden told Frontlines, “The information we received from the Met office gave us drought forecasts in terms of probabilities. We still decided to plant because we were fortunate to have access to the river and could fill up water drums ahead of time in anticipation of the drought.”

Risden lost the corn she planted on the 13-acre property in Crooked River, Clarendon, one of the parishes hardest hit by the drought with only two per cent of normal rainfall, but was able to save much of the peas, beans and hot peppers.

Six months after Jamaica’s Met Service made its ground-breaking forecast, the CIMH presented the first region-wide drought outlook at the Caribbean Regional Climate Outlook Forum in Kingston. Now 23 other Caribbean and Central American countries are using the tool to encourage climate change resilience and inform decision-making.

“Regionally the tool is now a standard fixture across several countries within the region, including the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Haiti. This regional effort is coordinated by the CIMH,” Brown said.

Back in Jamaica, the tool is being hailed “a game-changer” in the climate fight by Jeffery Spooner head of the Met Service, who described the CPT as “an extremely important tool in Climate Change forecasting and specifically for the agricultural – including fisheries- and water sectors for rainfall projection .”

The CPT is now also used to provide regular monthly bulletins that are published by the Meteorological Service on their web site RADA has also continued to use the CPT in its extension service, to enhance the ability of farmers’ and other agricultural interests to improve water harvesting, planting and other activities.

Since most of the island’s small farms depend on rainfall, more farmers – including those with large holdings – are using the information to better manage water use and guide their activities, Scott said.

Local and intentional scientists have linked the extreme atmospheric conditions related to the droughts affecting Jamaica and the region to the persistent high-pressure systems that has prevented the formation of tropical cyclones to global warming and climate change.


Image from the Jamaica Weather website shows areas likely to have less rainfall

Across the agricultural sector, Jamaica continues to feel the impacts of drought and the challenges are expected to increase with the climate change. In a 2013 agricultural sector support analysis, the Inter-American Development Bank estimated, low impact on extreme climate events on Jamaica’s agriculture sector by 2025 could reach 3.4 per cent of “baseline GDP” annually.

In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Synthesis Report (AR5) pointed to tools like the CPT to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Its importance to Jamaica’s and the region’s food security and water sector cannot be overlooked.

In addition to adaptation for the water sector, the CPT is being modified to provide early warning indicators for wind speeds and coral bleaching among among other applications, said the report.

And as showers of blessings cooled the land and brought much relief in the closing months of the year, CPT shows the drought could well be over.




Jamaica’s Aging Water Systems Falter Under Intense Heat and Drought

By Zadie Neufville

(The following article was published by InterPress Service on  Nov 18 2015 )

KINGSTON, Jamaica: This past summer Jamaicans sweltered through their third consecutive year of reduced rainfall resulting in wild fires, a crop-killing drought and daily water cuts.

As temperatures exceeded 93.7 F (34.2 Celsius) in several areas, the Meteorological Service urged Jamaicans to “Wake up to the realisation that climate change is already a fact of life.” Some of the hottest days on record had been recorded in July with even higher temperatures predicted for August.

54With storage running low and an expectation that conditions would exceed the drought of 2014, the National Water Commission (NWC) began its annual restrictions and rolling lock-offs. In 2014, thought to be Jamaica’s worse drought in more than 30 years, rainfall averaged 2 to 12 percent in the most affected areas.

Meteorologist Evan Thompson told reporters at the Gleaner’s Editors Forum on July 1, “We are talking about climate change, sometimes thinking about it as something that is still coming, whereas it is something that is already here.”

As the NWC scrambled to reactivate out-of-use wells to ease the shortages, many called for the dredging of dams and reservoirs to increase storage capacities. Environment, Water and Climate Change Minister Robert Pickersgill announced a ‘prohibition notice’ with a penalty of up to 30 days in jail for “anyone caught using the precious liquid for anything other than household and sanitary use. “ For the first time Jamaica had attached enforcement penalties to water restrictions.

Kingston, one of the areas most affected by lock offs, sits on an abundance of tainted water in underground aquifers. But the capital city’s large untapped water source represents only a portion of the vast reserves that experts say remain under-exploited.

According to the Water Resources Authority (WRA), the island’s water management and regulatory body, Jamaica uses only 25 percent of its available groundwater resources and 11 percent of its accessible surface water.

Head of the WRA Basil Fernandez told IPS that it would take “proper water planning to deal with non-revenue water and improve transmission and distribution efficiency,” to solve the problem.

“There is need for a roadmap from the NWC and/or the Ministry on water supply planning that will set out clearly the areas of deficit, areas of surplus and how and when we will move from surplus to deficit areas,” he said.

Across the country households cleared inventories of water tanks, manufacturers increased production and hoteliers tapped into their storage tanks. Fires and the unrelenting sun destroyed the rain-fed farms of prized Blue Mountain Coffee crops, vegetable crops and Christmas trees that are grown in the buffer zone of the Blue Mountain National Park.

Lower down the slopes, fires also destroyed mature trees and vegetation in the Hope River and Yallahs Watershed areas, which supply 40 percent of NWC’s 600,000 customers in the Kingston Metropolitan region. Much of the area had been replanted between 2011 and 2013 as part of Jamaica’s Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction.

Under the project, the Forestry Department replanted more than 300,000 hectares of forests in degraded upper watershed areas to reduce run-off, erosion and silting of the waterways.

LABUSA-SUGAR-CANE-WORKERSAs water restrictions widened, farmers on the plains fared no better. The usually six-month long sugar cane harvest was over in less than a month after fires and drought decimated the crop. The Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) reported that the drought was most severe in Manchester and St. Elizabeth the ‘bread basket’ areas that accounted for about 40 percent of domestic agricultural production. In other areas crops wilted in the fields.

Scientists are predicting that these episodes will worsen as climate change increases the intensity of droughts across the Caribbean. Thompson agreed, noting that the unseasonably dry periods are happening in the midst of the Atlantic Hurricane season that runs from June 1 to November 30.

Unless there is rainfall and constant inflows of water, the volume of water will not significantly increase, Fernandez, told IPS, effectively dismissing calls for more dams and the de-silting the Mona Reservoir and Hermitage Dam.

“There must be better coordination of climate change efforts and projects; better communication to get the public to buy into the these efforts as well as the inclusion of climate change scenarios and impacts in all policies and projects and maintenance and adaptation of systems rather than building new systems,” he said.

As part of Jamaica’s Vision 2030, to make the country more resilient to the impacts of climate change, Government has begun work to protect and better manage the distribution of water. At risk are the nation’s health, the tourism and agricultural industries and Jamaica’s food security.

Vision 2030 is built into Jamaica’s second national communication to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (UNCCC).

In the last year, 25 water and sewage projects were completed to upgrade then old, leaky infrastructure which when coupled with theft, costs the NWC about 53 percent or 108 million liters of its daily production in the Kingston Metropolitan Area alone.

A 3.9 million dollar Watershed Management project funded by the Inter-American Development Bank through the Global Environment Facility (GEF) is expected to, among other things, improve water resource management in the Yallahs and Hope River watersheds. The five year programme is to carry out work on 44,486 hectares of land including sections of the region’s newest World Heritage Site, the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park.

The river at Castleton Gardens, Jamaica. Rivers are one of the main sources of water on the island.

The river at Castleton Gardens, Jamaica. Rivers are one of the main sources of water on the island.

An Artificial Aquifer Recharge facility to secure the sustainable abstraction of water from the aquifer by treating and returning excess water into natural underground storage is ongoing.

“This is a pioneering project, as it has never before been carried out in Jamaica or the Caribbean,” Pickersgill said at the July 2014 launch.

In addition, Government is also looking at plans to recover some of Kingston’s water that has been polluted by faecal bacteria from soak-away pits, latrines and saline intrusion.

The key to making the country resilient Fernandez said is “the preparation of communities and agencies to manage and conserve the resources; efficiently moving water from the north to the south of the island and a move to larger more efficient and resilient distribution systems.”

As Thompson explained, “So the droughts will be more severe, the rainfall episodes will be more significant, causing flooding. There will still be the need to work out how we manage the water resourced in between those episodes.”

The original article is here