By Raffique Shah
March 14, 2018
The last time the Regulated Industries Commission (RIC) awarded increases in water rates to the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) was in 1993. The RIC used data from the year 1989 to determine the increases. One can easily assume that in the ensuing 29 years, every commodity price from foods to fuels, apparels to real estate, has tripled, maybe quadrupled, so why should water rates be any different?
Yet, because of WASA’s many sins of omission and commission, most consumers would say, “Not a damn cent for them!” From its inability or neglect to repair in a timely manner thousands of leaks in its distribution systems that result in up to 60 percent of treated (potable) water going to waste, to leaving entire communities without water for weeks, months, even years, not to add being directly responsible for the atrocious state of roads where they conduct repairs, WASA can be described as a disaster zone that no government has been able to salvage.
Billions of dollars have been spent on replacing archaic mains, many of which had been installed since the era of colonialism. New mains have been installed as communities expanded and entirely new residential, commercial and industrial districts evolved. Dams and reservoirs were constructed or expanded. Water and wastewater treatment plants were upgraded or enhanced. Hundreds of booster stations have been added.
Hell, in this country where, even in years of drought, there is more than adequate rainfall to meet the approximately 250 million gallons per day (mgd) demand, we have commissioned two privately-owned desalination plants from which WASA is legally compelled to buy what they produce, in one case witth US dollars.
And still, WASA cannot get it right. Government after government promises “water for all”, which none has delivered. WASA is a runaway horse that taxpayers subsidise to the tune of $2 billion a year. It is a den of corruption that is mired in a $7 billion debt-hole.
In sheer frustration, in presenting the 2017-2018 Budget last October, Finance Minister Colm Imbert said, “WASA”, receives an average annual subsidy of over $2 billion a year to assist it in paying salaries, servicing debt, paying suppliers, carrying out repairs and undertaking its development projects. However, despite such massive financial assistance from the State, WASA is financially challenged and struggles to pay its bills on a daily basis,..”
And Public Utilities Minister Robert Le Hunte, noted recently: “Fixing leaks is the simplest way to improve WASA’s efficiency…”
No one can deny that current water rates are ridiculously low: the average household of, say, four persons, that is equipped with at least one or two showers/toilets, a kitchen tap, washing machine and a yard tap, and which would likely use 400 gallons per day (30,000 gallons per month), ought to pay between $27 and $74 per month, or $108 and $304 per quarterly billing cycle.
Because of WASA’s incompetence, it collects far less. For example, I fall within the above bracket, and I pay $196 per cycle. I know of many other residences that are bigger than mine with more occupants that are billed less than $100. I know people who simply do not pay their water rates and who are never disconnected.
By way of information, metered homes that use up to 150 cubic metres per month (33,000 gallons) pay $1.75 per unit, or $262 per month. And commercial or industrial customers pay $474 per month.
If WASA were to accurately bill and collect from all its customers at the current rates, it would reduce its annual deficit by at least 25 percent ($500 million), maybe more. If it reduces leaks by 50 percent, it could save another half-billion dollars.
Which brings us to the key issue: should the RIC increase water rates? The answer must be in the affirmative, but with stringent conditionalities. We consumers must not be made to pay only to see irresponsible managers and other employees of the utility flush our hard-earned dollars down the drains, literally, or worse, into sewer pipes.
WASA must be made to account for revenues it earns and subventions from Government, the latter to be reduced until it is eliminated within a set time-frame, say five years. The thieves at the utility and their contractor-collaborators must, at the very least, be fired, or preferably jailed. And the overlord-managers who are punishing small contractors by withholding payments for jobs completed but bribes not paid, lock them up!
The RIC, in considering water rates’ increases, should note that WASA personnel come across as being more sewage than potable water, as dumb and dumber. Yes, metering is an expensive exercise. But can they not get it underway by having every new connection so serviced, with the applicant paying the cost?
Have they metered all water-intensive commercial and industrial businesses-car wash outfits, restaurants, beverages manufacturers, etc?
These small but revenue-enhancing measures may make common sense to you and me. But at WASA, where dumb and dumber rule the roost, it might well be a case of sewage more than water.