Nain High School gets piped water…finally!

NAIN, St Elizabeth — Stevon Scheriffe is walking on air.

The youthful principal of Nain High School, near the closed bauxite/alumina plant of JISCO Alpart, has been on a high for several weeks since the National Water Commission (NWC) connected piped water to his school.

“I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am for the NWC connection,” Scheriffe told the Jamaica Observer by telephone recently. “This is going to make a big difference for us,” he said.

Looking back, Scheriffe says he was crestfallen when he took over as principal in September last year to find no piped water at Nain High.

Despite decades of bauxite mining and alumina production, generating wealth for overseas companies and government’s coffers, much of south-eastern St Elizabeth – including the Essex Valley area embracing communities such as Nain, Myersville, Lititz – and southern Manchester remain without NWC water. Residents are largely dependent on rainwater harvesting (catchment and storage) and trucked water, in an area that is among the driest and most drought-prone in Jamaica.

Nain High – first established by the Anglican church in 1863, greatly expanded in recent decades, and eventually upgraded to high school status in 2015 – has long relied on trucked water.

Before, and since being shut down in late 2019 for a modernisation project that is yet to happen, JISCO Alpart, as part of its community outreach, trucked water to the school from its well field.

But prior to the lockdown of face-to-face school as a result of COVID-19 in March of last year, the water from Alpart was never enough to consistently meet the needs of Nain High’s 440 students, 44 teachers and other staff members.

That meant school leaders had to buy trucked water costing an estimated $500,000 annually. “That was a strain,” said Scheriffe.

For the new school principal, matters came to a head in January this year when the Government gave conditional approval for some schools to resume face-to-face classes, once they could guarantee adherence to adequate COVID-19 safety measures.

To Scheriffe’s disappointment, his school missed out because health inspectors were dissatisfied with arrangements for a properly sanitised environment in the absence of piped water.

That’s when the school’s board of directors and principal reached out to the National Water Commission (NWC). They were pleased to discover that due to the October, 2019 commissioning of the Essex Valley Water Supply & Upgrade Project, which originates from a well field at Long Hill, a few miles west of Nain, an NWC connection was now possible.

The water is piped from Long Hill close to Northampton, easterly along the main road through Myersville and Nain and upslope to fast-growing Junction, in the lower reaches of the Santa Cruz mountains.

Scheriffe was told by NWC staff to make an online application, which he did. However, the project was not straightforward since the water had to come from the NWC line on the main road, a few hundred metres away.

Joy came in late April when, after weeks of work, NWC crews finally connected running water to Nain High School.

School leaders now look forward to far fewer hurdles when face-to-face school resumes and much-reduced costs, since water bills will be the direct responsibility of the Government.

Scheriffe as well as the school’s board chairman, Rev Barrington Buchanan, and community leader Archibald White, who operates a water trucking service, told the Observer that they are now looking forward to residents of Nain and the wider Essex Valley receiving NWC water.

“We have to wonder when will people get water,” said Buchanan. He observed that up to recently the health centre in Myersville had to be buying trucked water.

Yet, while conceding that water from the Essex Valley scheme is not yet available to everyone in the project area, Jermaine Jackson, regional manager for the NWC, said that householders on the several miles of main road from Myersville to Junction, as well as the side road on which Nain High School is located, can now apply for water.

“All they have to do is apply online,” said Jackson. He and ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Member of Parliament for St Elizabeth South Eastern Frank Witter voiced disappointment that many who are eligible have still not responded to invitations to apply to the NWC, despite the well-established need for piped, drinkable water.

Witter said the initial installation cost of $16,000 was proving to be a “big problem” for many people. He argued that NWC would do well to get that cost down.

Cost apart, Layton Smith, Opposition People’s National Party (PNP) councillor for the Myersville Division, which includes Nain, said many people were intimidated by the relatively new concept of having to use the Internet to apply for water connections.

“Because of this COVID [threat] the NWC telling people to apply online. I keep saying to them that half of the people don’t know anything about ‘online’…if they really want people to apply for water, what the NWC needs to do is get their [employees] out into the communities to help the people fill out the application forms,” said Smith.

Witter told the Observer that gradually, “little by little”, communities “off the main road” will be connected to the Essex Valley Water Supply & Upgrade Project.

He identified off-main communities such as All Valley, Lower Warminster and the Myersville Housing Scheme among those already connected. Others to be connected soon include New Building, Lititz and Comma Pen, the MP said.

First formally conceptualised in 2001 and then officially launched the following year as a partnership between the Government and Alpart, the Essex Valley Water Supply & Upgrade Project was originally intended to provide piped water for people close to the alumina plant. Those people were said to be especially in need since their stored rainwater was being “spoilt” by contaminants from the plant carried by the wind.

For decades before the project launch, and since, Alpart has sought to relieve water problems for neighbouring residents and institutions by trucking ‘social’ water — at considerable cost.

But when the Essex Valley Water Supply & Upgrade Project was eventually commissioned 17 years after its launch, the increasingly urgent need for running water in Junction led to project planners choosing to bypass many communities for whom it was originally intended.

On October 23, 2019 there was great joy among residents in Junction when the water was turned on there by Prime Minister Andrew Holness. But downslope at Nain, a small group of demonstrators – mostly PNP supporters – protested bitterly, claiming people nearest to the bauxite/alumina plant had been betrayed.

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