Trinis are nothing if not what the Irish call “contrary,” with strong opinions on most issues. We agree on few things, almost wilfully going against the grain.
Yet on the matter of WASA there seems to be little difference between us. From all the responses to the shenanigans surrounding the Water and Sewerage Authority last week, the conclusion to be reached is that Trinis agree that WASA, created in 1965, is moribund.
This is the sort of consensus a newly-elected government needing to implement unpopular policies in the early part of its term in office yearns for. The present political incumbents would do well to ride that wave and do the people’s bidding and be radical in the solution of the WASA problem.
Not even the WASA workers supported the shameless bidding of Watson Duke to pile oil on the fire of public disdain and stay away from work last Tuesday, taking a “covid day off,” as he put it. He had the temerity to exhort the Public Services Association members to stay home to “rest and reflect.”
I am not sure upon what they might reflect, but they certainly thought they needed no such time since the facts are there for everyone to see and they have already reflected that Duke is firing off half-cocked in his unrelenting daily pursuit of making the running order of the evening TV news, followed by the early pages of next day’s papers.
They might also have reflected that even though they voted him back in last year as their president, had they taken the day off for covid, they would have been breaking the law. They also might have reconsidered Duke’s words in August 2020 that he would no longer defy the government to defend them. They might be glad of that. Mr Duke has certainly overplayed his hand.
The WASA workers ignored their president for complicated reasons, but it is encouraging. Are we citizens first, or party members, or unions members? It is a bit like the pandemic in the sense that we, as a group, cannot be safe if those around us are not.
Water – its lack, its poor quality, its mismanagement and all the seemingly insurmountable problems with WASA – is everybody’s business and our very future and well-being are wrapped in it. Water has been badly managed for decades, it has caused riots and umpteen studies have been conducted into its reform, yet we let the ball drop and we are in the present lamentable situation.
The UN General Assembly has explicitly declared water and sanitation human rights; not WASA-coloured water but clean drinking water, which is essential for the realisation of all other human rights. This puts water rights above the rights of workers. Several previous, cowardly governments have certainly failed us, allowing WASA to entrench its bad habits, but, in response to this column last week, I am informed that civil society was heavily involved in the preparation of an "Integrated Water Resource Management" policy for many years, and a final document was presented to Cabinet around 1998.
As usual, it was not implemented – yet another waste of public money. Among its recommendations were the establishment of a new Water Authority and the involvement of civil society in the decision-making process via the representation of all key sectors on the governing board. These would also include agriculture, forestry, fisheries, energy, industry, town and country planning or land use, transport, tourism and telecommunications. I wonder if the present government’s review referred to that or other shelved policy documents.
It could be strategic for the current Minister of Utilities, who at least sounds serious, to enlist today’s unhappy civil society to pursue the much needed reform of the water and sewerage sector at this propitious moment. It could be a vote-winner and an unforgettable legacy of this government. We do not have to reinvent the wheel. Many examples exist of better water management, both as private- and public-sector operations.
The US has kept most of the water management in the public sector, but under the supervision of the US Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies under the Safe Drinking Water Act. In many other countries, including the UK, which has very old infrastructure, water management is in the hands of both the public and private sector.
Online, see: Water in the UK: 1 The UK water supply – OpenLearn – Open University – S278_17
Privatisation works to the public’s benefit only if proper checks and balances exist. In the UK’s hybrid management (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), customer rights are safeguarded by regulation, and the proper functioning of the water companies is overseen by a government office. The companies must carry out tests for water quality and failures must be reported to the appropriate body – either a government office or an independent, government-appointed regulator – which sets standards for the various chemicals in drinking water and can prosecute companies that fail to meet them.
Whatever we decide to do, it beats just twiddling our thumbs.