Ganga’s blue gold
MARINA SALANDY-BROWN Thursday, June 28 2012
The Prime Minister’s Cabinet reshuffle produced some surprises but if a government’s policy direction can be gauged by the profile of individuals appointed to cabinet posts then Jack Warner’s “man of action” quality guarantees an interesting approach to managing crime, and with Larry Howai as replacement Minister of Finance we can expect a different focus given to the management of the economy. The appointment of Ganga Singh to the new post of Minister of Environment and Water Resources also holds certain promises.
Our PM is obviously hopeful of Mr Singh’s ability as a former UNC government Minister of Public Utilities and outgoing CEO of WASA to manage some of our most important resources; some might say the most important. It is clear that she has water, and WASA, in her sights. That is encouraging. Now we have to see if Mr Singh can take the bold steps needed to put the environment, and particularly water, at the heart of Mr Howai’s spending plans and Mr Vasant Bharath’s investment plans.
As a people, we in TT are great water wasters even though only about a quarter of us have a constant water supply for more than three days a week. The rest of us might get none at all or only a weekly supply. Many hillside dwellers cannot afford to install expensive pumps and piping and must rely on buying water from water trucks that in the long run might well be just as expensive. And yet we are lucky because there are countries where 90 percent of people have no access to potable water although it is a source of life. Humans can survive for a month without food but for only 5-7 days without water.
Globally, insufficient fresh and clean water to sustain human life is one of the big issues facing governments. The widespread fall out of the crisis in the eurozone palls in comparison to the size of the problem of water, a resource so precious that it is known as blue gold. A lot has been said and written about the nature of future conflicts between nations. As far back as 20 years ago a former BBC radio colleague made a series of programmes about the water wars that are bound to come, and a documentary film about the subject was a 2008 international prizewinner. I saw at the weekend a disturbing TV report about the fights that are becoming commonplace among people inside India where mismanagement of the water supply has led to serious shortages, and pollution has led to chronic diseases. Entire villages are being abandoned through lack of water for drinking and farming.
Although the earth is largely covered with water, only 2.5 percent is available as freshwater and of that, less than one percent is available for the ecosystems and humans (UNEP). Our bodies comprise approximately 75 percent of water and our blood is 83 percent water. Even our bones consist of 25 percent of water. Everything we use requires water: we need 8-10 glasses daily; growing one day’s food for one adult uses 1,700 gallons, producing a barrel of beer requires 1,500 gallons. Our lucrative methanol industry is a great water guzzler, as are so many other industries.
We all have different individual problems with WASA – there’s no water, it’s dirty, or it’s wasted — but WASA also has responsibility for managing the industrial use of water and for the conservation of our water resources; and for ensuring that sewage system management is efficient. WASA is only useful to the population if it does a lot more than it is doing now to control pollution of all sorts and better conserve the water supply.
Tackling excessive pollution of our waterways should be at the top of Mr Singh’s to-do list. Who would drink from, or eat a fish (if there are any) from any river coursing our urban areas? Intermittent media reports show that industries still discharge untreated waste directly into rivers or the sea. Overuse of pesticides and fertilisers, bush fires, industrial and agricultural waste, poorly treated sewerage etc. have made environmental degradation widespread, and deforestation and indiscriminate construction have caused poor drainage, which then affects fish and plant life and cause flooding. To know how badly the Caroni Basin is affected take a trip in the Caroni swamp. The stench can be intolerable.
I advocate joined-up government and following good example. We could learn from India where involving local people in simple water conservation and management projects has effectively reversed negative environmental trends. Mr Suruj Rambachan’s Local Government ministry should be putting its head together with Mr Singh to achieve some of what needs to be done. But WASA has a key role to play in ensuring that we safeguard our precious gift of comparatively abundant water. Being a former WASA insider should be an advantage for Mr Singh. Failure will be difficult to excuse.