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Raffique Shah


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Sustainable growth, not egotistical misadventures

March 12, 2006
By Raffique Shah

THERE is nothing wrong with the Government planning for the future of the nation, seeking to use the overflow of oil and gas dollars to reshape the country, make it a better place for its citizens and for those who are around in 2020 and thereafter. Our political history is replete with examples of Government plans and projects that were geared only for electioneering purposes.

Vision 2020, the Patrick Manning mode of preparing for the future, for developed country status, may well be a welcome return to development planning. The exercise involved a wide cross-section of academics and interest groups and its final positions ought to be those that are most acceptable to the population.

Still, I wonder if the experts who were involved in the numerous committees were mindful of the ever-changing geopolitics around the world, and more so the hemispheric convulsions that will impact on our future. I shall not dwell further in the energy sector, except to say that in the government's haste to monetise our resources, it appears to be committing a kind of hara-kiri.

The high prices for oil and gas will not decline in the foreseeable future. Studies by experts in the field show that US$60 a barrel for oil is a reasonable price when inflationary trends over the past 20 years are taken into consideration. We need not rush to cash in excessively on what resources we do have. We should look instead for generous returns on a sustainable basis.

While we are among the fortunate countries around the globe to be endowed with gas and oil, we cannot depend on only these resources to take us into a future of serious global changes. Food security has always been critical to the success of any country. In the near future food will be as valuable as energy as scarcity sets in when demand grows in hitherto poor countries, and prices will climb, making life hell for countries that depend on imports for their survival.

Trinidad and Tobago and most of the Caribbean fall in this category. One need only look at our staples to see where our weaknesses lie: we import all the wheat flour we use, 90 per cent of our livestock feed and a similar percentage of the rice we consume; throw into the pot legumes, meats, oils and fats, and a host of other basics, and the picture becomes frightening. Recently, consumers have been complaining about runaway prices among basic food items. What they fail to realise is that the increases start not here, but in countries from which we import foods, and increased cost of shipping.

If we seek to stabilise prices here, we need to examine what we produce or can produce, what our neighbours do, and rationalise production and trade to keep prices stable. Here, the awakening giant that is South America can play a critical role. From Chile and Argentina to the south to Venezuela and Guyana to the north, the continent, working in cohesion with the Caribbean, can prove to be the food basket we require for our future needs.

We cannot continue to rely on the North, where prices are sure to hit the roof. Already we are feeling the effects of this dependence. Food security is of critical importance to any initiative towards developed country status.

The other precious commodity (or element) that we take for granted, but which, in a few decades, will cause nations to go to war, is water. "Oh, no!" you say. A UN study in 2003 showed that by 2050, some seven billion people living in 60 countries could be faced with water scarcity. If, however, countries implement policies to conserve and fully utilise their water, the number likely to be left thirsty will drop to two billion.

We are blessed with more water than we need, thanks to Mother Nature. Problem is we allow most of it to go to waste, not just via leaking WASA pipelines, but through rank stupidity of those who care nothing about our future. We are only now about to construct one new dam when, with copious rainfall, we ought to have had dozens in place.

These will have captured water for purposes other than drinking, but be there for WASA to tap in to in the event of a drought. Of equal importance is the fact that the greatest demand for water comes not from residential consumers, but from industrial plants, which we propose to increase almost exponentially.

I have hardly scratched the surface of the numerous obstacles we face in our bid to attain developed country status.

Suffice it to say that unless we rein in our propensity for adopting the worst facets of the world's current "exemplars" of development, 50 years hence we will have left for future generations a country writhing in agony, a people cussing us for having blown their patrimony on egotistical misadventures.