Of earthquakes and high stakes…

Pictures by H.F.Smith, 2015

Happy New Year!

Here’s hoping for a most prosperous, productive and enlightening 2016 in your local neck of the woods and the global diaspora!

January is observed here in Jamaica as Earthquake Awareness Month. It is a most appropriate month for this observation…not because ITS THE BEST MONTH MIND YOU (smile) but because the last and most devastating earthquake in the island’s history known as the great Kingston earthquake and fire occurred on January 14, 1907. On that fateful day, the city of Kingston was severely damaged by an earthquake.  It was reported that over 1,000 people died mostly in the fires following the main shock and after-shocks. After-shocks continued for the rest of the year. The commemoration is affiliated with this point in our history. I also believe that January- the start of a year-  is an opportune time to get the island into readiness (preparedness) after all that’s usually the period of resolution making…isn’t it?

Jamaica’s location along the northern margin of the Caribbean Plate and the presence of very active faults on the island makes it vulnerable to earthquakes. As such, earthquakes can occur at anytime and anywhere on the island.  This is not probability to be taken lightly. In fact, according to the Earthquake Unit at the University of the West Indies, about 200 earthquakes are located in and around Jamaica per year most of which are minor, having magnitudes less than 4.0. Geophysics professor Eric Calais of Purdue University urged the country’s government and various stakeholders to understand that the threat is very real based on the area’s history and active seismic activity. Professor Calais who was on a visit to the island in 2013, as part of a mission with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), said most scientists agree that Jamaica will most likely be exposed to an earthquake with a magnitude of 7 or 7.5 on the Richter scale.

Read more: http://www.caribbean360.com/news/jamaica_news/seismic-expert-urges-jamaica-to-prepare-for-major-earthquake#ixzz3wmImTb00

Jamaica has become significantly more urbanized since the last major ‘quake. The in-migration to ‘cities’ have resulted in a highly urbanized population. In Jamaica the Population and Housing Census, 2011 informs that 54 per cent of the population of Jamaica lived in urban areas, where a place is considered to be urban if it has a population of 2,000 or more persons and provides a number of amenities and facilities which in Jamaica indicate modern living[1]. This represents a 1.9 percentage point increase over the 2001 Census. Further, it is projected that the urban population will increase to 58.0 per cent in 2030[2].Historically, in Jamaica, the rural-urban migration was initially viewed favourably as a natural process of transferring surplus labour from the rural sector to the urban industrial sector[3]. The expectation was that migrants would find well paying jobs in urban areas and send remittances to their families, thereby improving the welfare of rural folks left behind.

Subsequently, to provide shelter as well as to foster and grow the economy, formal and informal land development activities have increased in these urban areas. Buildings continue to be raised everyday whether for commercial or residential purposes. The size and scale being dependent on the final users- be it individual households (see pictures above) or multi-users. However, 70% of buildings are informal being designed and built without professional inputs, according to the Jamaica Institute of Engineers (JIE).

Currently, two major processes are unfolding, both of which will have bearing on the level of increased preparedness. Firstly, Cabinet approval is being sought for the tabling of the revised Building Act in Parliament which will, secondly, facilitate the adoption and efficient application of the National Building Code.The National Building Code will facilitate the adoption and application of internationally recognised building standards as well as the accreditation of building products, construction methods, building components and systems.

The revised Building Act will create an efficient structure for issuing building permits and certificates of occupancy, establish a fair system for the resolution of building disputes, regulate training and certification standards, license building practitioners and establish procedures for recognising building professionals. It will address a variety of development issues including areas of insufficiently planned development, illegal occupation of and construction on private and public land, among other things…substantial undertakings.

A National Building Act is the underpinning legislation required to give authority to the Building Code. Without the Act, the code cannot be legally enforced and would be an optional code and the intention of regulating the industry is defeated.

The local authorities will serve as the building regulator for their jurisdiction, in that they will ensure that all building work within their areas is carried out in accordance with the legislation and the National Building Code.

These authorities will also be responsible for issuing certificates of compliance and occupancy of buildings and building work, as well as stipulate fees for services provided. Specifically the local authorities will: be the owners of the code compliance process; ensure that all entities which are part of the process play their role; ensure only designs complying with all applicable aspects of the code are approved; ensure competence of all plan reviewers, building inspectors etc., and ensure that all construction projects are monitored through to completion.

The decentralization of such services as predicated by the Building Act should strengthen the  Local Authorities who prior to now operated with archaic laws. A presentation in 2014 conducted by renowned local engineer, N.DaCosta for the Jamaica Institute of Engineers highlighted that current legal Building code in Jamaica is 106 years old, woefully outdated. Jamaica’s legal Building Code has not been updated since 1908, and other codes used are way beyond their useful lives.

As 2016 is being touted as the Urban year…it is hoped that in Jamaica the above processes will be concluded so that the rate at which the towns are becoming urbanized may be more congruous with international building standards- formally institutionalized in the construction sector. You see Jamaica’s built environment is a significant component of its national assets. Thus calling to mind the finalization of the Building Act (Act 0,2011) in order to foster mandatory  compliance with a national building code  would increase mitigation against a single disaster wiping out national physical assets. 

[1] Population and Housing Census 2011.
[2] Statistical Institute of Jamaica (2013). Jamaica Living Conditions and Household Composition. Population and Housing Census 2011.
[3] Tindigarukayo, J. The Impact of Rural-Urban Influx on Jamaican Society. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science. Vol. 4, No. 9(1); July 2014.