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Monday 19 March 2018

Bottled water for all?

When you think of bottled water, the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) is not the first thing that comes to mind. This is for several reasons.

WASA is in the business of providing an essential service, not making profits, and so the commodification of water does not sit easily with the notion of a taxpayer-funded water supply.

Also, in as much as WASA is a brand, it’s not a brand known for its reliability.

Though many strides have been made, water supply is still erratic in certain parts of the country.

Tardy repair of leaks remains a perennial difficulty, as recently highlighted by a one-man protest which featured a man photographed in a jacuzzi-sized pothole.

There are also questions over accountability, internal finance practices, asset leakage, salary levels, and, most crucially, revenue sustainability.

But these problems spring from multiple sources. They may have something to do with poor management practices.

Or they may reflect a vicious cycle: lack of funds breeds lack of funds. In reality, it’s probably a combination of both. But with the subvention to WASA reaching $9 billion, the time has come for the authority to be creative. It needs to devise ways to make money in order to improve its service and reduce pressure on our beleaguered Treasury.

Revenue of $800 million is a drop in the bucket when compared with annual expenditure of $2.7 billion, and debts of $1.1 billion. While selling bottled water is an obvious option on paper, it will only make sense in the context of an overall strategic reform. WASA must first rehabilitate its brand. That will require more than just bottling water and selling it.

A good place to start will be to address concerns over water quality. Time and time again WASA assures customers that the water in our taps is good to drink.

Yet, very often that water flows brown.

We need to know more about the standards being applied by the authority as well as its systems of monitoring and testing not only at dams and reservoirs but also throughout the water network.

Are WASA’s systems robust enough? Certainly regular problems with the supply do little to convince us that they are.

Bottling water is certainly a less extreme revenue-generation measure than seizing assets of errant debtors.

It is also more viable that being forced to pay out $2.2 million in damages for nuisance. But before diversifying its output, WASA would do well to go back to basics.


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