By Raffique Shah
May 08, 2019
If we agree with the adage a picture tells a thousand words, then by extrapolation, given the immense advances in information technology, a website, especially one belonging to a public utility like the Water and Sewerage Authority, ought to have billions of megabytes of data that are readily available to the public at the click of a computer mouse.
That was not the case when I tried to access online information on the water management and distribution agency for use in this column. The desperate cries from communities across the country for water, the second most vital element to human, plant and animal life, prompted me to wonder aloud: what the hell is happening at WASA? Readers will no doubt say that the utility has always been inefficient, delinquent, contemptuous of consumers, and has total disregard for the public whose tax dollars support its operating costs to the tune of approximately $2 billion a year.
My reason for throwing the spotlight on them is very personal. As someone who has enjoyed a good water supply all my life, from as far back as when my family relied on a public “standpipe” almost at our doorstep in Bokaro to 50 years of reasonably reliable supplies in lower Claxton Bay, I cannot imagine people not having potable water to drink (I am a tap-water man), bathe, cook, flush toilets, wash dishes and clothes and do other chores that require water.
It is unimaginable that entire communities have had to endure no-water torture for weeks, sometimes months, and in a few instances for generations. And it is unacceptable that WASA is allowed to get away with what ought to be classified as a crime against the citizenry-and no one in authority does a damn about it.
It was with such anger coursing through my brain that I clicked on their website to see if there was any plausible explanation. What I found only aggravated my anger. First, except for a few recent media releases and presumably the most recent water distribution schedule, the information was stale-dated (2014) and stereotypical. The public will be excited by the commissioning of a Corporate Governance Task Force that will drive “the corporatisation initiative”, which, I learned is “The process of transformation of a Government owned entity such as a public utility into a publicly owned corporation with its own corporate identity”.
There is the standard jargon that comes out of such exercises—”excellent goodwill among customers”, “a company managed and operated with private sector best practices”, and “an organisation that is performance driven”.
Before you hold your belly and roll with laughter, check this vision statement: to be the best performing water utility in the Western Hemisphere! WASA, is that you?
As fate would have it, as I groped for information that might shed light on why so many consumers were going waterless for extended periods, Public Utilities Minister Robert Le Hunte was a guest on radio I95.5FM trying to talk his way out of the same issues I intended to address. He said more or less what his predecessors over the past 30 years have said.
WASA has aged infrastructure, specifically its transmission and distribution lines, of which 2,500 kilometres (I don’t know if I’m quoting the minister correctly here) need to be replaced. But neither the utility nor government has the money to undertake the exercise. Flashing through my memory at that point was UNC Minister Ganga Singh, back in 1995-2000, “dropping pipe all over the country” (Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s words on an election platform), and successive governments’ commitment of “water for all by 2000” or whatever year suited their fancy.
Did any of them seriously address the water production, processing, distribution and storage problems? Le Hunte said that winning water from surface run-off and aquifers was not the biggest challenge, nor was processing it. There are adequate treatment plants that processes approximately 220 million gallons per day, far above our requirements. But an estimated 40 to 50 percent of that volume is lost through leakages. And per capita consumption is a staggering 83 gallons per day, almost twice times the international norm of 44 gallons.
In other words, both WASA and consumers waste potable water.
To add to WASA’s woes, the prices at which water is sold to different categories of consumers are way below the global average. In the Caribbean, only Suriname sells water cheaper—US 29 cents per cubic metre against T&T’s 31 cents. WASA’s prices are fixed by the Regulated Industries Commission, which last granted rate increases in 1993. In the Bahamas, a cubic metre of water sells for US $3.72, Jamaica $1.72 and Barbados $1.38.
Moreover, WASA, like Petrotrin, carries a huge debt portfolio—TT $5.3 million at the end of 2017, which it cannot service. Meanwhile, delinquent consumers owe the utility approximately $700 million which the authority has failed to collect or taken action to recover. WASA can lawfully disconnect delinquents or, after due process, put their properties up for sale.
Whatever actions the utility intends to take to put its house in order—and most citizens will say, with justification, that the first step must be the firing of all 5,000-plus managers and employees—it must immediately find ways to ensure that no community in this relatively wealthy country must be without water for more than three days. Because of the utility’s abysmal performance throughout its existence, most households have domestic storage capacity that can rally them for that long. As a bonus, such consumers will be coerced into conservation.
But we cannot, must not, ignore the cries of the tens of thousands of thirsty consumers, the unwashed, the suffering they endure, because water flows in our taps. As human beings, we must always be able to feel deeply the injustices, or in this case inequity of distribution of water, meted out to people anywhere in our country.
Such empathy is what differentiates human beings from animals, although I must confess that increasingly, I find those lines are so blurred, I often wonder who is man and who is beast.