By VASANT BHARATH
October is traditionally one of the wettest months of the year in Trinidad and Tobago, and yet there are communities that have endured long days without the precious commodity of water.
There were dry taps in Arima, San Francique, Diego Martin, Mayaro, Debe, Princes Town, San Juan and several other areas, even as heavy rains caused flash flooding.
There was literally more water on the roadways than through the pipelines of many householders.
The irony of water supply
The irony of water supply in these twin islands of just over 2,000 square miles is also a shocking testimony to the quality of national governance.
In fact, little speaks more graphically to the quality of Trinidad and Tobago’s leadership than the inability to provide an efficient supply of pipe-borne water to citizens.
In an age of space missions, cashless societies and artificial intelligence, this tiny country – surrounded entirely by water – cannot assure an effective delivery of this most precious commodity.
Any analysis of T&T’s continuing failure to manage its domestic affairs must begin with a critical review of the water sector.
The problem is a long-standing one.
It became widespread more than 60 years ago, with the growth and geographic spread of the national population.
In the 1950s, the colonial authorities identified the issue and assured of the allocation of resources, with a commitment of a national pipeline network by 1960.
Little Emphasis on Water Supply
That never materialised, and the successive administrations of Dr. Eric Williams placed little emphasis on water distribution, in addition to ingraining rural neglect.
The situation turned even more urgent with further population expansion, growth of commercial activities and the mushrooming of industrialisation, especially with the Point Lisas park.
PNM governments set up housing settlements without any thought to the provision of utilities and infrastructure.
The establishment of the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) in 1965 was not matched with a prioritisation of commodity delivery.
While there was modernisation of telecommunications and electricity services in the 1970s and 1980s, the development of the water sector did not attract similar policy attention.
Many citizens were forced to drag box carts long distances to fill “pitch oil” containers from standpipes.
Residents were made to pay black market prices for truck deliveries.
In rural districts, “PH” drivers dropped off water cans almost as frequently as commuters.
It was the Basdeo Panday administration of 1995 that committed itself to “water for all by 2000”, a lofty, even if unattainable, goal.
Panday identified the urgency of the problem and created a master plan that included greater harvesting, an improved distribution network and a programme of fixing leaks.
It was virtually impossible to resolve an endemic, age-old problem within quick months, and this was worsened by Panday’s truncated electoral term.
His signature project was the setting up of a desalination plant along the margins of Point Lisas.
This initially provided 24 million gallons each day to the nearby industries, and freed up a similar volume of the processed commodity from WASA’s grid for domestic use.
The supply was later doubled.
This should have been a cost-efficient template.
But once again, the water issue fell down the list of national priorities.
The PP Government focused on improving the tattered infrastructure and expanding public facilities, such as hospitals, police and fire stations and schools.
The effect of Climate Change
But like a crushing headache, the water nightmare simply won’t go away, and has been worsened by the impact of climate change.
The soaring heat caused by the greenhouse effect has had a crippling effect, to which there has not been any purposeful response.
Dry taps abound in the midst of the rainy season, leading to anxieties of what awaits during the traditional dry months.
WASA’s response to repairing leaks has been typically lethargic.
The bloated payroll and prevalent inefficiency have made the authority “permanently bankrupt,” as acknowledged by Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley.
But Rowley’s PNM stands most accused of padding the workforce with non-performing political cronies and of sanctioning waste, disorganisation and incompetence.
On top of that, the Rowley administration has taken no progressive steps to create a path toward a reliable water supply, despite dedicating an entire section in its 2015 manifesto to the issue.
The PNM promised best practices in the sector, with an integrated plan that included managing all resources and repairing pipeline leaks.
The political party also touted a separate Water Resources Agency and other administrative measures.
The PNM acknowledged that inadequate access to water “could also lead to negative health impacts in the country.”
The government has not implemented any of its manifesto promises, and is also a sitting duck to the dreadful effect of climate change.
No decisive leadership
With forecasts for ongoing rain shortfall and climbing temperatures, the ruling regime’s response is characteristically knee-jerk and unplanned.
The water crisis requires hands-on and decisive leadership.
There is urgent need for a creative dry season plan, and for the creation – and achievement – of measurable short-term goals.
All opportunities must be made to boost harvesting and to fix broken pipelines.
Instead, the tortured Minister of Public Utilities Robert Le Hunte speaks only of water conservation, ignoring WASA’s critical role in resource management and his leadership duties.
Clearly, Le Hunte has no strategic plan to confront the worsening disaster, and, instead, would simply punish consumers.
His boss, Dr. Rowley, is turning the issue into a political crusade, pointing fingers at the previous administration instead of formulating solutions to a clear and present crisis.
As if the trials of living in Trinidad and Tobago are not already onerous, citizens must now brace for even more dry taps, with expected effects on health, school attendance and industry and commerce.
It is a sorry pass for an island nation that was assured of a free-flowing water supply literally decades ago and which has enjoyed the best-performing regional economy.
The looming dry season will again remind all of the gross failures of water delivery of all previous political administrations.
But that would do nothing to improve the supply.
Instead, we must speak out, hold our current and aspirant leaders to account, and demand better.
Water is precious to life.
Our leaders must know of our collective frustration with their gross incompetence.