January 09, 2005
By Raffique Shah
WHEN, last Thursday, Prime Minister Patrick Manning announced that government had approved a $27 billion plan to completely overhaul
WASA*, many people will have simply "steupsed" and turned off their television sets.
Why spend that much money on a utility that has never, in any of its incarnations, adequately met the needs of the people it was meant to serve? Why, after the Caroni-Arena dam and downstream project, which was undertaken not more than 20 years ago, should we have to spend such a huge sum on WASA?
Besieged taxpayers will point to the desalination plant, which costs them a hefty sum every year since it became operational. And to the repeated financial woes this utility has found itself in, government after government, year after year.
The politicians will not admit that their lack of vision, their uncaring attitude, their dereliction of duty, their inability to act decisively, even if that meant firing hordes of party hacks, have led us to this sorry pass. I shall deal with the WASA issue first, since I identified it as a millstone around the necks of the population.
This is not to damn the bridge most of us have crossed, since, except for several areas in the country that remain mysteriously without water for months, and its unannounced and insensitive cuts at the most inappropriate of times, the utility has delivered. It's only when you visit other developing countries where potable water is a privilege, not a right, that you learn to appreciate WASA. Or when you learn of the cost of water to consumers in developed countries, that you understand that we are not doing that badly.
Still, to come in 2005 and tell us we need to spend $27 billion on the utility to prepare it for "developed status", is to insult our intelligence. When did the management of the utility realise they needed a complete overhaul of the winning and distribution systems? When some high-cost consultants told them as much last week?
This mode of thinking infuriates me, since, as an average citizen, I realised shortly after the Caroni-Arena dam came on stream, that our ancient distributing system was literally porous. One saw multiple leakages wherever the "pressure" turned on, and the old steel pipes came under stress. Water spewed from busted pipes, sometime for years, and no one seemed to care. Worse, that was treated water that cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
It was clear from then, or even before that, that what was required was a complete replacement of the old mains. Clearly, that would cost, and it would take many years to complete. Mr Manning now says, "We have no choice we must do it." Yes, I agree. But we should have known that 20, 30 years ago. And if we had started on that project then, it might have cost us much less than $27 billion, and by now a complete new distribution system would have been in place.
Instead, those who are responsible to the nation for delivering this vital element, twiddled their thumbs, did nothing but patchwork, and have now put us in this very expensive dilemma.
I have long maintained that if governments had acted with purpose and the people's interest at heart, we would have not had the need for a desalination plant. How does one rationalise a more-than-adequate rainfall, indeed floods everywhere, meaning there is a massive surplus of water literally raining on us, but our inability to win that water to meet all our needs? Desalination plants are required in countries where there is little rainfall not in a tropical country in which flooding, not drought, is a perennial problem.
Incidentally, the first person I heard talking of constructing dams along the Caroni and Caparo rivers was John Humphrey. That was way back in 1975, when we were drafting the policy and programme of the then visionary ULF. And I thought it was the ideal solution to several of our problems, from flooding to water shortages in the dry season.
I never did ask John what he did when he was part of government to put that proposal into effect. But I need add that Franklin Khan's proposal for one dam in Mamoral to mitigate the Caparo Valley flooding is a stupid idea! Common sense dictates that several smaller dams be constructed along that river (and the Caroni) not just to prevent flooding, but also to serve as a source of untreated water for farmers from upstream Tabaquite to downstream Carlsen Field and beyond. The dams could also be utilised for aquaculture and recreational purposes.
WASA and its $27 billion dilemma is just one of the many major problems that face us, problems that could have been solved years ago. Take the landslides that all but cut off North Coast villages and resorts from the rest of the country last week. Did that surprise anyone? A jackass trudging that road will have long recognised the potential for such disaster, since, when the road was built however many years ago, it was not intended to accommodate the kind of traffic and general usage it now copes with.
Clearly, the widening of that road, which will have meant cutting into hillside, was something that should have been undertaken decades ago. There was always talk, too, about constructing a new road to Maracas through the Santa Cruz valley. That won't help: you get to Maracas, but what about people who live or own estates or run businesses all the way from there to Blanchisseuse?
Then we have a penchant for getting into mega-projects, but completely ignore their maintenance. You look at the well-equipped secondary schools that were constructed under the Dr Eric Williams government during the 1970s. Within 10 years some of them looked like latrines well, maybe I exaggerate, but I'm sure you get my drift.
No maintenance. When the massive Mt Hope hospital was conceived by Williams, we (I was part of the ULF opposition) asked at the time: what will maintenance costs be? Do we need as expansive a project as that? No thought, no answers. They just went ahead with this prestige project, and 30 years later parts of that hospital remain under-utilised. Meanwhile, in districts where full hospitals are needed (like Couva), we have near-primitive health centres.
If I were in the Prime Minister's position, I would apologise to the nation for allowing WASA's infrastructure to get to where it is (or is not) today. I would swear never again to ignore the needs of the people I serve. And I would try and think visionary, think of country first, not self, not party.
*(Water And Sewage Authority)