Thursday, 29 March 2012

Dangerous Visions

I was listening to Mark Boleat's talk at the Chamber of Commerce yesterday, and I was struck by his mention of how affluent Jersey was, and how good the standard of living was here.

With respect to his erudition, he seems strangely out of touch with the lower rungs of Jersey's society, where making ends meet on a monthly basis is a major feat, doctor's expenses are cripplingly expensive, and pensioners face increasing hardship. I don't think he inhabits the same world as people that I meet. Perhaps he should go out more, away from the lofty heights of his tower, and consider the pensioner who is faced with a choice between heating one room to keep warm, and buying enough food to keep body and soul together. No one who did could say "we live in an affluent society".

But more damaging is his linking of economic migration leads to a higher standard of living, and saying that you cannot have one without the other, and this poses no problem to sustainability:

It is sometimes argued that immigration poses a sustainability issue for any economy. This cannot generally be the case, as immigration has little to do with sustainability. The least sustainable economies are those with a declining population rather than those with a rising one. However, there can be a short-term issue in providing the physical infrastructure that a rising population needs, and there is also a longer-term issue in respect of land use. A rising population will, other things being equal, require more physical development, although generally the effect of declining household sizes has a rather greater effect. If an area with strong immigration makes the necessary land available for increased housing supply, obviously at some environmental cost, then there is no reason why house prices should increase by any more than in other areas. If, however, land is not made available then the effect of rising immigration is to increase house prices.

There is debate in many communities about the "desirable" size of the population for that community. Often the debate is about whether the area has the resources to accommodate a larger population. With the important exception of land, the resources a community requires are not predominantly natural resources but rather manufactured goods and services. Whether these can be acquired depends on the purchasing power of the community. An area that is not naturally inhospitable or inaccessible can accommodate almost any size of population.

Territories that are often compared with Jersey - Bermuda, Guernsey, Malta and Gibraltar - have higher densities of population. The Far East centres of Singapore and Hong Kong have population densities more than seven times that of Jersey.

What he fails to realise - or willfully ignores - is that many of these territories have had to address various issues of sustainability, whether it is electricity supply, water supply, sewage disposal, traffic, food security, hospital resources, education facilities - to name but a few.

Let's look at the issue of water, for example. It is obvious from last year, that with a major reservoir out of action for part of the summer, and low rainfall, that Jersey was facing serious drought conditions. Plans were even mooted to ship water into the Island from Norway. As things stand, there is a limit to the capacity of the water supply, and as we approach that capacity, the Island will be increasingly vulnerable to drought conditions.

Of course, there is always the desalination plant, and one Deputy told me a few years ago that they could just put in another one if needs be, and run them all the time. He cheerfully disregarded the cost of running them, which I suppose is what one must expect from a politician on £44,000 per annum. In fact, it costs around £4,000 a day, which is why - when it was needed in 2011 - Jersey water said that decision "on whether or not to fire up the plant will not be taken lightly.".

What does this mean for Mark Boleat's position on sustainability? It means that if we are dependent on sources of water like the desalination plant because of too great a population, the cost of water to the consumer will increase dramatically. This in turn will impact on the standard of living, making Jersey a much less attractive place to live.

But being an Island, it is difficult for the population to have the mobility of a larger area like Britain - people who get caught in a poverty trap can often not afford to emigrate, because that requires an amount of capital that they do not have. So those people will suffer, and income support costs will rise, and hence the Island rate will have to go up to pay for that. This will impact on the standard of living of what we may term "middle Jersey". There is always a chain of consequences, linked together. Sustainability is an issue, and cannot be just dismissed.

How have other jurisdictions managed to cope with water supply? Let us consider Hong Kong. This has a high population density, few natural lakes, rivers or groundwater reserves:

Until 1964 water rationing was a constant reality for Hong Kong residents, occurring for more than 300 days per year. The worst crisis occurred in 1963-64 when water was delivered only every 4 days for 4 hours each time. The city-state then embarked on a three-pronged approach to supply water to a population that increased from 1.7 million in 1945 to about 6 million in 1992. The approach involved seawater flushing, the construction of larger freshwater reservoirs in bays that used to be covered by the sea, and water imports from mainland China.

In 1960 legislation was introduced to promote seawater flushing on a larger scale, followed by substantial investments in a separate network although the system was unpopular due to the need to build a separate plumbing network in each house. (1)

But in the end, the best solution was to import water through a network of pipes from mainland China:

About 70% of water demand met by importing water from the Dongjiang River in neighboring Guangdong province. In addition, freshwater demand is curtailed by the use of seawater for toilet flushing, using a separate distribution system.

Clearly, Jersey could lay down a pipe network to France and import water that way, providing there was an adequate supply in Normandy. A pipe network carrying water would probably be a more difficult engineering feat than electricity, but it would be possible. Of course, because of intensive farming, the actual discharge of a river in France can be more than half composed of wastewater effluents despite efforts which have improved the Seine. And groundwater shows an overall increase in the concentration of nutrients and pesticides. But the increased cost of this would have to be passed on to the consumer, and once more we end up with an economic cycle which would reduce the standard of living.

Equally, provision could be made in building laws and planning permission to ensure a dual plumbing system is put into new houses, so that - like in Hong Kong - fresh water and water for toilet flushing, perhaps from rainfall, could be put in place. I know someone in Trinity who has no water pipes at all; he depends on a tanker, and on rainwater storage.

This won't do for flats, where water consumption will easily outstrip demand, but it could be put in place for new houses. This would help to solve the problem of water supply, and I think it is quite a good idea - but it would mean that the issue of sustainability would have to be addressed and not ignored. Building costs might also increase, because of the extra requirements - this happened in Hong Kong - and that will impact on house prices.

So we can manage with more population growth and means of keeping water consumption down by alternative means of getting water - like the family in Trinity, and like the Hong Kong system, but it does require addressing the issue of sustainability. It can't be ignored, and it is directly related to immigration. More people use more water: it is as simple as that.

Let's look at Bermuda. This Island is only 20.6 square miles, with a population in 2010 of 64,268. and a density of of 3,293 people per square mile. Jersey is 46.13 square miles, with a population in 2011 of 97,857, giving a density of 2,121 people per square mile.

So what is Bermuda's water supply like?

The only source of fresh water in Bermuda is rainfall, which is collected on roofs and catchments (or drawn from underground lenses) and stored in tanks. Each dwelling usually has at least one of these tanks forming part of its foundation. Residents typically add bleach to make the water safe to drink.

All private dwelling units and apartment complexes must by law have their own water tanks - see below - to collect and store rainfall, mandated in size by local building and planning regulations. Without rivers or a rainy season and no fresh water lakes, Bermuda depends on the weather for water. Without regular rain, home owners and commercial properties will have problems. With a solid limestone rock base, piped in water is not feasible, except in certain commercial areas.

The supply of drinkable and/or well water is not is not and never has been a Bermuda Government service for the real estate taxes paid. Homes can store about 14,000 gallons per bedroom completely independently of any other building. But with Bermuda Government import duty averaging 30 percent at wholesale and the resulting impact on retail prices of all building materials and plumbing fixtures, a major disadvantage is the huge extra cost of building water tanks that property owners in most other countries do not have to endure.

Water tanks - the most common source of water for home and apartment buildings - are often found under bedrooms, living rooms or patios but are not allowed under bathrooms or kitchens. Bermuda relies on the combination of rainwater falling on roofs and piped to more than 21,000 water tanks and groundwater extracted from underground lenses for more than 90 percent of its entire water supply. Rainwater by itself is nowhere near sufficient, at a volume of 1.4 million gallons overall yearly, to supply all of Bermuda's demands in one of the highest populations anywhere in the world per square mile. Rainwater can be used immediately but groundwater - large pockets of water under the ground - can take two years to go from rain to lenses (2)

And this impacts considerably on their standard of living, and poses health risks, as the quality of water can vary. Moreover, there is a large use of bottled water for drinking, which again goes against sustainability, and impacts on waste which needs disposal; in this respect, Bermuda seems locked into being a throw-away society. And reading how this impacts on people does not make it seem like a nice way to live:

The quality of tank water depends largely on how well the property owner maintains the water system including the roof and tank. The Department of Health of the Bermuda Government recommends, among other things, that he roof should be power-washed or wire-brushed when dirty, or no later than once every two years, to remove old paint and fungal growth. Then it should be washed with undiluted bleach before applying an approved roof paint; the tank should be cleaned at least every six years. But this means emptying it first, then refilling it. Some properties have not had their tanks emptied, cleaned and refilled for 20 or more years. The health of occupants is at risk. Also, there is a danger that tanks not emptied and cleaned periodically will develop a slow leak, which will render the landlord or tenant liable to buy water, possibly frequently; disinfecting the water using 2-4 ounces of bleach for every 1,000 gallons of water in the tank.

Imported bottled water is very much in demand. But be aware bottled water contains no fluoride, and generally more adults suffer from a fluoride deficiency, which can lead to tooth decay. (2)

So much for a "comparable" jurisdiction! "Some properties have not had their tanks emptied, cleaned and refilled for 20 or more years". That's an indirect consequence of the way Bermuda copes with water supply problems, and as Mr. Boleat has probably not been resident in Bermuda for any appreciable length of time outside hotels, which he may have visited, he may well have been unaware of this.

And notably Mr. Boleat doesn't mention that Bermuda is strongly addressing the issue of immigration. Bermuda has Work Permits for Employment of all non-citizens, and that is required for all working newcomers including those from the United Kingdom and visiting consultants or guest speakers. Moreover the system is designed to favour native Bermudians. Many Bermudians have two or three jobs, to make ends meet. But this is not allowed - under the Immigration Laws - for people who are not Bermudian:

Non-Bermudians allowed Work Permits in Bermuda are not allowed to emigrate to Bermuda. Instead, they come for as long as they are approved for a Work Permit, then must leave unless they marry and co-habit with a Bermudian and are permitted to stay because of that and can wait 10 years to become a Bermudian as the direct result of that same enduring marriage.

When a work permit comes up for renewal, the employer must advertise the job and give full consideration to qualified Bermudian applicants. If there are no qualified Bermudians, non-Bermudians can be rehired, assuming they have not exceeded their six-year term limit or any extension granted to it. (3)

Strangely, when considering the higher population of Bermuda as an argument that Jersey could sustain a higher population density, these very stringent controls went unmentioned. Indeed, Mr. Boleat fulminated against what he termed the "lump of labour" fallacy - the idea that if people come in from abroad to take jobs they are depriving local people of those same jobs - and yet Bermuda's Immigration policies seem designed specifically with that in mind!

So it can be seen that "the resources a community requires are not predominantly natural resources" is not just related to land use, according to the Boleat thesis, but requires a more detailed examination and comparison with other jurisdictions. Of course, as a matter of resource, the water problem could be solved by simply throwing money at it - a pipeline to France or more desalination. But that will impact on costs, and that will lower the standard of living for most people, apart from the richer members of society, whose monetary resources can insulate them from those effects.

The statement "immigration has little to do with sustainability" cannot just be allowed to stand without question. And when examined, it is found wanting.


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