Water leaks and outages are part of daily life in Jamaica. Rebekah Kebede

Frequent water outages on the island result in huge productivity losses.

By nightfall every Tuesday, Latoya Foster has to make sure all her laundry and cleaning is done. That is when the water supply to her home on the outskirts of Kingston, Jamaica, shuts off until Saturday morning.

Four days on, three days off—this has been her water schedule for years.

Sitting at the foothills of the Blue Mountains, Jamaica’s capital doesn’t look like it has a water problem. The city is full of the lush foliage you’d expect in the tropics: green palms, birds of paradise, bougainvillea.

But residents of Kingston like Latoya and the rest of the island have perennial problems getting water to their taps, partly due to an aging and overburdened water system. To make matters worse, Jamaica has been suffering from drought conditions due to the El Niño effect for most of this year.

Water “lock-offs,” as Jamaicans call outages, are commonplace, and often happen without warning. They are so common that Marlon James, the Jamaican novelist who just won the Man Booker Prize, mentioned them

in a recent interview as he reminisced about his childhood in the Portmore suburb of Kingston. They are a staple of life on the island.

Jamaica prides itself on its potable water supply, but more than 60 percent of the island’s water infrastructure is too old to be effective, according to the government. Although much of the water network was constructed in the 1960s when Jamaica became independent, there are still bits and pieces from the original system built in the 1800s, according to Charles Buchanan, the public relations manager at the National Water Commission (NWC), the utility that supplies the island with most of its water.

Jamaica’s creaky system repeatedly springs leaks that gush scarce water into the streets. Last year, the island had more than 40,000 leaks. More than half of the water that the NWC produces for Kingston ends up seeping out of leaky pipes or siphoned off by illegal connections.

All of which means there is not enough water for paying customers.

Water outages are common in Jamaica, causing widespread frustration and lost productivity. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)  

“It may seem like just a water restriction, but it does cause ripple effects,” says Foster, who is a program manager for the Environmental Health Foundation, a local NGO. For Foster, one of the effects was that she had to cough up around $1,000 to install a storage tank so she would have water for cooking and bathing during the three off days of the week.

Schools occasionally shut their doors for days at a time due to water shortages. Some Jamaicans have taken to the streets, demonstrating for better water access. The NWC’s Facebook page is full of comments from irritated customers demanding to know why their water was shut off and when it will be back.

All of this may escape the notice of tourists. Big tourist hotels generally cope with the outages by storing water in tanks, and many are far from Kingston, where there’s not as much competition for supplies.

Water outages have resulted in a huge loss of productivity, according to Dennis Chung, CEO of the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica, a prominent membership organization of Jamaican businesses.

The most recent drought cost Jamaica around $100 million, Chung says. A lot of that can be chalked up to workers clocking in late when their taps run dry and the cost of businesses trucking in water, he explains.

As a result of the outages, some Jamaicans resort to sourcing their water from untreated sources, which is a health concern, according to Myrton Smith, the president of the Medical Association of Jamaica.

Many Jamaicans also use barrels and other containers to store water for outages and those can become breeding grounds for mosquitoes that carry diseases like Chikungunya, Zika virus, and dengue fever.

In addition to the cost of stocking up on bottled water, there can be other costs when the water is out. Anna Douglas, who lives in a middle-class neighborhood of Kingston, says she regularly comes home to find there’s no water. As a result, she often gets take-out after work just in case it’s a no-water day.  

“I don’t want to cook and wash up with the little water that I have, because I don’t know when it’s coming back,” Douglas says.

Jamaicans’ complaints haven’t gone unheard. Earlier this year, the government decided to spend $42.5 million on staunching the water losses in the Kingston area, which is home to around just under 600,000 people, about a fifth of the island’s population.

Miya, the Israeli company tasked with mopping up the leaks, is aiming to save Kingston 85 million liters (23 million gallons) of potable water per day within 5 years, according to the group’s chairman, Meir Wietchner.

Miya was set up by Shari Arison, the Israeli billionaire whose family founded cruise operator Carnival, and specializes in urban water efficiency.

By doing things like detecting leaks, managing the water pressure that often wears down infrastructure, and training up staff on new techniques, this project could save the country $250 million over the first five years, the Jamaican government estimates.

Miya’s Wietchner points to the Bahamas as a success story that Jamaica could replicate. There, Miya cut water losses from 58 percent to 20 percent in two years, an accomplishment that meant Bahamians could get water around the clock eight months after the project started.

If the project is successful, it will mean more water is available when Jamaica goes through its regular drought periods as well as when unpredictable rainfall leads to water insecurity. Until March 2016, Miya is taking stock of Kingston’s water system, figuring out what exactly needs fixing.

Meanwhile, the city is playing a game of whack-a-mole, with the NWC fixing leaks only to have them spring up again literally just down the street.

As your correspondent was reporting this story, a pipe burst in her own neighborhood. It was a couple hundred yards down the street from where another leak was fixed barely a month ago.  

The new leak gushed for several days, one more drain on the city’s reservoirs.  

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