Minister of Public Utilities Marvin Gonzales, during his first year in government, has had to oversee one of the country's most significant ministries and the age-old problems surrounding it.
His maiden voyage has not been without its challenges. but overall, he has said he is proud of the work he has accomplished and looks optimistically to the fiscal year ahead.
In a candid interview with Newsday on Tuesday, Gonzales shared the highlights and pitfalls of the utility sector he oversees – especially the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) – and his concerns about TT's water deficit.
He also shared his vision of a more recycling-oriented national community and the steps the ministry is taking towards an eco-friendly future.
“It was a shocker,” said Marvin Gonzales with a laugh when asked about diving into the workload of the ministry he inherited. He was appointed minister on August 19, 2020.
He said he felt the weight of the responsibility he carried within the first month on the job.
“The importance of the utilities sector in Trinidad and Tobago was indeed a shocker for me, but I am at my best when I am faced with challenges. I love challenges.
“What is comforting to me is that the ministry has on board a team of competent specialists to work with me, as a young minister, to move the agenda forward, and that is why in one year we were able to put together different strategies.”
Gonzales laid the report of a Cabinet sub-committee – assigned to investigate WASA in August 2020 – in Parliament on March 6. Among its list of offences, Gonzales said rampant corruption was found to have led to the authority’s dysfunctional management.
“What I have discovered, even after I disclosed the report of the sub-committee to look into WASA...is the state of WASA's infrastructure, it being in a very derelict state,” he said on Tuesday. “It is in a state of disrepair, and it will require large sums of money to upgrade the infrastructure to maintain the reliability of water (supply).”
This has been a perennial lament.
Gonzales said when an area experiences supply disruptions, it is rarely because of not having water in the ground, but the result of poor infrastructure.
“It takes a lot of pumping to get (low-level) water in high-level communities. Those pumps have to be working 24/7 – without proper (preventative) maintenance programmes in place, which WASA does not have. On a given day WASA is really reacting to the disruption and not taking proactive measures to prevent it from taking place.”
Gonzales said he prefers a hands-on approach to the management of his ministry.
“I like to go out in the field and see things for myself. I certainly don’t trust what is reported to me, because often times they try to hide the reality.”
Gonzales said the main focus of the ministry heading into 2022-2023 is to upgrade WASA's infrastructure and deploy technologically advanced systems to its distribution grid so distribution can be done remotely.
“Why in 2021 we have to rely on a turncork to open a valve to get water in a community, when all across the world these things are done digitally?”
He said there was an external team of engineers in the country at present. At the time of Newsday’s visit, the team was in Tucker Valley examining the state of the booster station there.
Gonzales said he expects to have a report from the team within the next two months.
“They will be working with WASA to put together a preventative maintenance programme to reduce the high level of disruptions. What they are discovering is really eye-opening.”
Gonzales said he was also concerned about the water deficit.
“How much water we need from our ground and surface sources to provide communities across TT – I can tell you, we need to get at least about 50-60 million gallons of water more.”
He said the reason a scheduling system is needed is because there is not enough water available to provide all communities at the same time.
“Over the last 20 years we have constructed Housing and Development Corporation communities all across the country, but have not increased the volume of water to provide for these communities.”
He said in 2022 the ministry would also seek to establish service or supply zones. Each zone will cater to the distribution needs of its surrounding communities.
“We will be looking to establish water sources as close as possible to those zones so you will not have to transport water from far off to get into some of those communities when you can provide localised sources of water. Those are some of the challenges we have found.”
The ministry’s biggest challenge remains the water sector but Gonzales remains hopeful.
“Once we continue in this direction, before three years the country will incrementally see improvement in its water supply.”
Praise for T&TEC, TTPOST
Gonzales said, despite the challenges, he was satisfied with the performance of other utility companies, namely the T&T Electricity Commission (T&TEC) and the TT Postal Corporation (TTPost).
He said the current rates T&TEC charges are not financially sustainable. The commission owes the National Gas Company, from which it sources the gas it needs to generate electricity, $3-4 billion.
He said the rates cover issues such as overhead lines and employees' salaries, but do not cater to the company’s expenditure costs.
“The company can’t continue like that, because it is a drain on NGC…and the State cannot continue to borrow money to help T&TEC to pay for this, because taxpayers will be impacted.”
He said T&TEC has one of the cheapest electricity rates in the world.
“A lot of people will go online and bash T&TEC when there are disruptions. There will always be disruptions. But when you look at T&TEC’s performance indicators, it is very well on par with the best utility companies…despite its financial challenges.”
He said TTPost has also made “tremendous strides” in its parcel delivery system.
“We have seen improvement that have contributed a lot of revenue for that state agency.”
Gonzales said in the next two years, the corporation will look to digitise its services and become financially independent from state subventions, adding a number of digital services will be offered to the public, as a wide cross-section of its operations will be on a digital platform.
Nurturing a recycle-conscious national community
As for the Solid Waste Management Company (SWMCOL), Gonzales said it has completed its integrated waste management strategy and plan, and he will take that to Cabinet in the first month of 2022.
“The beverage container legislation and policy we’ve been talking about for so long, we intend to make progress where that is concerned. Some of our major landfills are filled to capacity."
In September, SWMCOL entered into a memorandum of understanding with the National Gas Company (NGC) which seeks to extract methane gas from landfills.
He said studies suggest landfills are a major source of large volumes of methane gas, which can be used to manufacture CNG gas, which can then be commercialised and increase revenue potential for the country.
In addition, he said, “What we need to do in TT requires a change in behaviour, starting from the home.”
He said the ministry plans to engage the public in education campaigns as part of its recycling effort.
Gonzales said the ministry has been in talks with Canadian experts, who have said public education is the key to building a more eco-conscious society.
“Every country is different, but in every country, educating the public is key.”
He has also engaged other international counterparts such as the ambassador of Japan, for advice.
“We are looking for a model that suits TT. Japan is very disciplined, and there are consequences for when (recycling rules) are broken. In TT, we are more laid back."
The ministry is looking to Nova Scotia as a suitable model, as it resembles the TT situatiion.