The Worsening Disaster WATER SUPPLY NOT A GOV’T PRIORITY

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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.

WASA Woes

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.

Panday’s promise

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.