Sunday, January 20, 2013

Let's fix the water problem - the Peter O'Connor commentary

Desalination plant at Point Lisas, Trinidad
The decision taken in the late 1990’s, to build a Desalination Plant to overcome our alleged water shortages, was a mistake. I said so back then, and many times in between, and I say so again today. 

With the multi-million dollar plant shutdown for several days, we are learning that technical, “artificial” means of producing water are subject to breakdowns and “service shut-downs”. Whereas water stored in dams, reservoirs and the like is always on hand, to use and to waste.

And we are going to discuss the waste of water, including the fact that sixty per cent of WASA’s “desalinated water” is wasted by WASA. Yes, we built that expensive facility in order to waste sixty percent of its production. Let us backtrack.

Trinidad and Tobago is not Bahrain, or the Bahamas, or some dry rock in the ocean. We experience heavy annual rainfall, to the extent that flooding is a weekly hazard in the rainy season. 

So why are we trying to “manufacture” water from the sea like Bahrain? It should be obvious, but obviously is not, that we have a water management problem, not a water shortage problem. 

Yes, people all across the country will say there are water shortages, because there is no water in their taps. So, to try to give these people water, we go out and drill wells and even, God help us!—build Desalination Plants.

But if we have water at source—underground, in our rivers, and in our dams, why is there no water flowing from our taps?

Well, WASA will tell you, as will the World Bank, and the Inter American Bank, that approximately sixty per cent of the water produced by WASA and pumped into the transmission system (the water mains) is wasted by leaks and breakages in that transmission system. In simple terms, most of the pipes are broken.

Now, if you were a chicken farmer producing eggs, and every day sixty per cent of your eggs were broken on the way to market, what would you do in order to get all your eggs delivered? Would you buy more chickens? Or would you fix the breakage problem?

Back in the 1980’s an IADB Loan had been arranged for the replacement of WASA’s mains. But since elections in countries like ours are detrimental to development, the NAR government in 1987 needed to “review the proposal”. 

When they lost office in 1991, they were almost ready to go ahead with the project. But by then it had become “an NAR project”, and it stalled again for the PNM to review.
The UNC government was more creative. Instead of replacing all the WASA mains, as was required, they decided to build a Desalination Plant instead. 

This was a far more dramatic political endeavour, the plant highly visible and of course, still under investigations for alleged corruption. But the water it produces, when it is operating, is lost in the same porous mains which waste the rest of WASA’s water.

Is it really so difficult to understand that the solution to our water problems lies in the replacement of WASA’s mains, and not in the production of more water?

The lack of a constant water supply in our homes has become so “normal” that the population no longer cares. We spend annually millions of dollars on tanks, pumps and electricity to provide us with the product which any modern society simply delivers at the turn of a tap. 

Little St. Kitts, with much less rainfall than we experience, has no water problems. None of the homes, even new ones on hillsides, have storage tanks and pumps. How is it that Trinidad and Tobago, with all of our wealth, and all of our rainfall and water in rivers and underground, suffers from chronic lack of water in most districts?

It is because of our total indifference as a population, and the comfortable neglect that we permit successive governments to pour upon us. We citizens of Trinidad and Tobago need to wake up from acquired indifference to the abuses we suffer and demand that we do what every WASA Board and Manager has always known—and indeed advocated—and install a new water mains system throughout the country. 

We build Waterfront, Tarouba and other bling instead because the politicians know that they can do these things for their egos while secure in the knowledge that we are accustomed to the appalling water condition.

But one day in the not too distant future, the folly of desalination over pipes will come home to roost, when either the plant, or the mains, fail us completely.

So, all of us—not just me—who are without water these days while they fix something we never needed, try to care enough to demand your right to water every day.

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Jai & Sero

Jai & Sero

Our family at home in Toronto 2008

Our family at home in Toronto 2008
Amit, Heather, Fuzz, Aj, Jiv, Shiva, Rampa, Sero, Jai