A godsend for flood-prone St Elizabeth communities

SANTA CRUZ, St Elizabeth — Farmer Dennis Roberts boasts of “20 chains of river” fringing his farm at Rocky Hill, less than two miles west of here.

Proximity to the stream, which is a tributary of the Black River, means he has easy access to irrigation water during drought.

The downside comes in periods of heavy rain when excess water breaks the banks of the stream, flooding his crops and farm land, with destructive results.

But in recent months, even during heavy rain, Roberts has had no flooding. He credits that to a 46,000-pound, $82.89-million amphibious excavator which has been cleaning and dredging the Upper Black River Morass since March this year.

Roberts, who plants corn, pumpkin, sweet pepper, sweet potato among other crops, says the regular cleaning of the water courses and drains means the water runs freely, with “no time to back up and flood the land”.

An exultant Roberts now says “we [farmers] can produce more, we have a longer time to plant, we can plan better … ahead of time…”

Farmers apart, the new river-cleaning equipment is good news for people in communities of the Upper Black River Morass. In the Tropical Storm Nicole rains of 2010 scores of people had to flee their homes located in communities such as New River and Braes River, close to Santa Cruz, as excess water from tributaries of the Black River took over large acreages.

Even outside of such disasters, rising water has occasionally forced people close to the wetlands to briefly leave home.

Local political representatives Delroy Slowley (Jamaica Labour Party – JLP), Member of Parliament for St Elizabeth North Eastern; and Councillor Christopher Williams (JLP, Santa Cruz Division) said the coming of the amphibious excavator had brought great relief.

“Communities like New River have suffered over the years but this machine makes a difference,” Williams told the Jamaica Observer during a commissioning ceremony for the amphibious excavator at Rocky Hill earlier this month.

“If you go down to New River [low-lying, flood-prone community north of Santa Cruz] now you will see some drains that used to be running with water… they are now dry. This can only mean better for the people in these parts. In the rainy season we start worrying, but this machine will get the drains clean,” Williams said.

Slowley, a leading businessman in Santa Cruz, said the machine’s impact in reducing flooding is also being felt in the town — the leading commercial centre in St Elizabeth.

“The effect is far-reaching,” said Slowley. “We are talking about the residents who live on the river banks, whether legally or illegally; we are talking about businesses operating in nearby Santa Cruz… we are seeing huge positive impacts…,” he said.

Speakers at the commissioning ceremony, including Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Pearnel Charles Jr, said that while the excavator has the capacity to function in both the Upper and Lower Black River Morass, it’s likely to be most needed in the upriver communities.

Charles identified Elim River, Windsor Canal, Dover, Grosmont River, Braes River, Thornton, YS River, Georges Valley River, Barton Springs among the areas that will benefit most.

The National Irrigation Commission (NIC), which has responsibility for managing and maintaining the excavator, is expected to clean more than 42,000 metres of drains annually in the Black River wetlands.

“You’re looking on a piece of equipment that is built to be able to manoeuvre soft terrain, to go down into the river and into the swamps,” Charles was reported by the Government’s information arm, Jamaica Information Service (JIS), as saying.

JC Hutchinson, Member of Parliament for St Elizabeth North Western, said farmers on the flood-prone former Appleton Sugar Estate further downstream would be among those benefiting from more comprehensive and consistent river cleaning.

JIS reported NIC’s Chief Executive Officer Joseph Gyles as saying that a robust maintenance programme will safeguard the amphibious excavator.

“This piece of equipment is, without doubt, an invaluable addition to the National Irrigation Commission’s fleet, as it propels our ability to maintain the entire drainage area in St Elizabeth…” Gyles said.

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