Time to relocate some vulnerable communities - Holness
The time has come for a national debate on the likely relocation of residents from unplanned communities that often leave them at risk of flooding and other catastrophic events caused by natural disasters.
That debate should begin in the nation’s Parliament, according to Prime Minister Andrew Holness. He made the statement while addressing the House of Representatives recently.
With the devastation caused by recent weather systems, namely Tropical Storm Zeta and Tropical Storm Eta, which unleashed torrential rains over the entire island just over two weeks apart, images of flooded homes, some halfway filled with mud, washed out roads and bridges, flattened crops and lost livestock are still fresh.
Preliminary estimates have put the damage to the road infrastructure alone at $2 billion; a figure the prime minister expects will be more than doubled, while the damage to crops has exceeded $1 billion.
A father and his daughter were also killed in Shooters Hill, St Andrew when their house was swept off a hillside during during rains associated with Tropical Storm Zeta at the end of October.
Extensive flooding in mostly southern parishes has left many homes and roads, particularly in Bull Bay in East Rural St Andrew and St Thomas badly damaged.
While citing that relocation may become necessary in some instances, Holness cautioned that politics should not play any part in such talks. Rather, he argued that the discussions should take into consideration the economic and social costs involved in rebuilding in the same places after each adverse weather event.
“The budget that we will have to consider (after the latest damage) will require us to now make allocations to recover and replace (and) rehabilitate housing that has been destroyed and roadways that have been destroyed. The question is, ‘should we seek to rebuild those houses and those roadways and recover those livelihoods in the place that they were destroyed,” said the prime minister.
“We see houses being destroyed on riverbanks and ….obviously it’s going to come to the feet of the Parliament again to replace these houses, to assist those persons that have been dislocated but the question that we will have to answer in this House, and the Cabinet will have to answer (is) should we seek to relocate those persons or should we seek to rebuild in the same spot.
“My own view is that after an objective assessment is done…we consider whether land is available for the relocation and whether the properties were in a river course, flood plain or a marginal area.
“After that assessment is done, I wish to tell the nation that this administration is of the view that where relocation is recommended after objective assessment then such relocation must be done,” said the prime minister.
He acknowledged that it would not be an easy undertaking, stressing that he was aware of the politics that could be involved.
“I know when the question of relocation is raised, you’re going to hear objections, you’re going to find all kinds of reasons why the persons can’t move and when you get down to it, it is where the names appear on the voters’ list,” he stated.
The relocation of residents has often been overshadowed by political considerations. A previous People’s National Party administration backtracked on plans to relocate residents of the informal Mona Commons settlement in front of the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI). At the time it was considered, the administration said the location of the community could jeopardize the UHWI’s standing as a teaching hospital. Nonetheless, the plans did not go ahead. Political watchers argued that the party likely considered the fact that Mona Commons is located in the swing constituency of Eastern St Andrew where the winning margin in the 2016 general elections was less than 150 votes.
But, while any relocation could affect both parties, Holness seems committed to the cause.
“I’m just sounding the alarm, the warning now, that we cannot have some of these communities continuing to exist in these areas in the face of the weather events that are projected to happen on a cyclical basis. Where people live in Jamaica has to now become a focus of government attention. So it’s not where you feel you want to go and live, we have to build infrastructure that is defensible, that is resilient, that incorporates these eventualities of weather events and then we have to build the planned communities around the infrastructure then we have to encourage people, many of them who are living in these unplanned communities to transition into the planned communities,” said Holness.