Jamaica Gleaner
Published: Friday | December 28, 2012
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Jamaica at risk of 'cascading' infrastructure damage
A section of the Petrojam complex in Kingston. The oil refinery is located in an industrial zone that is itself close to residential communities. - file
One massive disaster event could deprive Jamaica of as much as 60 per cent of its critical infrastructure because of the way in which vital services are clustered, according to disaster expert Keith Ford.

He is recommending that the practice of grouping critical services in accessible nodes and near to residential areas be discontinued, saying it could end up crippling the country.

In many areas, only a road separates major industrial plant from the residential areas, said Ford, citing the southern seaboard of the capital as an example.

"Sixty per cent of our electricity is generated from this location, also located there are the Bank of Jamaica, the oil refinery, airport and various other critical facilities," said the disaster risk analyst attached to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs ( UN OCHA)

Ford, who was speaking at a disaster conference in Montego Bay earlier this month, said the particular zone he referenced is home to the petroleum refinery and storage, a cement plant, other power plants, the Customs Department, residential settlements and the ports.

"As we focus on building resilience, it's important that we pause to look back and learn from the past," Ford stated, citing the 1907 earthquake which killed one in every 40 persons living in Kingston, and in which fires burnt for one week and the displaced population lived in temporary shelters for three years.

"Today, Kingston is a robust city. Questions must, however, be asked about certain aspects of that development," he said.

According to the risk analyst, dispersal of critical facilities must be implemented to reduce "cascading damage from single event. The outcome of such an event would be felt at the national level and would have overall implication for the development of the country," Ford said.

"While the development of the waterfront is important, this should be done in tandem with the development and implementation of disaster risk-reduction measures."

Ford, who spoke at CDEMA's 7th Caribbean Conference on Comprehensive Disaster Management, highlighted a near three-decade-old disaster in India as a lesson for Jamaica and the region to heed.

The Union Carbide plant is classified as the worst industrial accident in history, occurring on December 3, 1984. More than 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, immediately killing about 3,800 people and causing premature death for many thousands more.

"The accident at the Union Carbide plant in India also taught us a valuable lesson about the locating of industrial plants within residential areas," Ford said, in an address entitled 'Learning from Past Events'.

"It is clearly a lesson we have not learnt," he said.

Ford said that the Caribbean region should incorporate the necessary safety measures addressing the vulnerability of the human element. "There should be clearly identified industrial zones located away from populated areas," he said.

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