With maintenance among the most problematic issues for infrastructural and development projects in Jamaica, executive director of the Mona GeoInformatics Institute (MGI), Dr Ava Maxam says a better balance of both soft and hard engineering will preserve the country’s physical infrastructure and mitigate damage to the environment, as well as to lives and livelihoods.
“Without a doubt, maintenance is our main issue,” she quipped during a conversation with a team from The Jamaica National Group recently. The JN Group, through the JN Foundation, launched a comprehensive environmental programme in 2022 geared towards promoting environmental awareness, and focuses on key areas such as deforestation, waste management, water conservation and energy efficiency.
Dr Maxam noted that Jamaica has a poor history of maintaining its civil infrastructure. The absence of this keen approach to maintenance contributes to disastrous consequences during climatic hazards, such as heavy rainfall.
Better mixing of hard engineering solutions with soft environmental measures make maintenance easier, she insists, but the balance is missing in the pursuit of many of the country’s modern projects.
“For example, nowadays when we are building coastal roads there should be soft measures in place. So you want to know that your seagrass, coral reefs and mangroves are in place and thriving, along with that coastal road development. It’s not enough to just pave the road or raise it,” she said.
“We’ve seen where that makes maintenance easier,” she added, pointing out that seagrass and mangroves help to buffer the shoreline, reducing the level of maintenance required.
However, she believes while conscientious and ethical practices should prevail, legislating maintenance may be necessary to ensure it is carried out consistently and correctly in order to mitigate damage and loss to life and property.
“It may be [that] our laws need to catch up [by] building in maintenance regulations from the very beginning,” she argued.
How that could be enforced, Luke Buchanan, senior projects manager at MGI surmised, is during the development application process.
“For example, when you go to NEPA (National Environment and Planning Agency), if there is a clause to say, your project can’t go through [for approval] until it has certain maintenance plans in place, you can enforce it in that way,” he argued.
“It should be part of your sustainability plan,” Dr Maxam chimed in. “So if more emphasis is placed on what it will take to maintain these systems, then that will go a far way in making the system last, once it is implemented.”
Referencing the approach taken by her own organisation to underscore the point, Dr Maxam indicated that MGI, which innovates and deploys various software applications for governments and other agencies locally and regionally, insists on entities having a maintenance plan in place to support any solution provided.
“One of the first things we tell clients is that you have to think of maintenance from system planning stages, before we (MGI) build platforms or even code – before we go any further… You can’t just think of building something, implement, then expect it to run itself. You have to execute a thorough maintenance strategy immediately on deployment for sustaining that system for the long run,” she said.
She argued that the failure to maintain and expand drainage systems in urban areas, for example, has been a major cause for flooding along with various other factors to include: failure to expand the infrastructure to match the increased population and development; poor solid waste disposal habits; deforestation in the hinterlands around urban centres, including removal of mangrove forests. They contribute to increased vulnerability of areas such as Port Maria, St Mary, which, in February 2022, faced a catastrophic deluge following heavy rains.
“This issue of urban spread – you’re having a lot more paved surfaces, a lot more people and buildings with out-of-date, inadequate infrastructure; once there is this high density of people and buildings with no combination of expansion and modernisation of the drainage itself, you’re going to find that’s going to be disastrous when natural hazards impact these locations,” Dr Maxam said.