We believe that we would be excessively generous if we said that operations at the Barbados Water Authority are in a mess.
The problems there did not start in 2008, neither did they commence in 1994. They are not the creation of Prime Minister Freundel Stuart’s Democratic Labour Party, neither are they the legacy of Owen Arthur’s Barbados Labour Party.
Problems at the BWA are both systemic and endemic. In any given week the BWA issues virtually daily notifications of burst or leaking mains at multiple locations across the island. The precious commodity gushes freely everywhere — from Benthams, St. Lucy to Halton, St Philip; from Weston, St. James to Sayes Court, Christ Church; from Windsor, St. George to Paddock Road, St Michael. Simply put, there is water being wasted in every nook and cranny of Barbados.
Additionally, the BWA’s leaks are usually accompanied by vacuous addenda that water trucks will be in the affected areas to bring relief to consumers. Interpreted differently, the BWA would have us believe that it possesses more water trucks than it does water mains. But that is another story.
Just how did we become awash with these problems? And, more importantly, which administration, whether BLP, DLP, PEP or the New Barbados Kingdom Alliance, will show the intestinal fortitude to undertake what will be an astronomically expensive remedial programme? We understand that there are approximately 1,600 miles of pipe in our water network.
According to a recent in-depth probe into operations at the BWA, many, if not most, of the mains have deteriorated due to age, soil composition and internal erosion as a result of the mains not being properly lined. There is the unbelievable situation where the main from the springs in Newcastle, St. John was laid in the middle of the 19th Century and is still in operation.
Studies have shown over the past two decades that a high percentage of water is lost in the system long before reaching consumers. One study conducted by Klohn-Crippen Consultants and made public in 2000 estimated that water leakage was about 60 per cent. Though this figure was determined to be too high subsequently, any figure close to that “error” was still cause for great concern. A subsequent study by WS Atkins in 2000 put water loss at about 27 per cent — still too much.
A special audit into the BWA ordered by the Ministry of Finance showed that in 2004 that agency pointed to significant leakage in its existing network. The BWA, like Columbus discovering the “New World” deduced that the mains were old and losing as much as 40 to 50 per cent of the water that was injected into them. Once again a massive mains replacement seemed the only solution. But here is where it gets ridiculous. According to an audit of the BWA, the failure to carry out budgeted replacement of mains between 2007 and 2010 was due to finances, late arrival of material and the methods of excavation. A US $50 million loan deal from the Inter-American Development Bank was negotiated specifically to assist the BWA in a mains replacement programme. Yet, according to the audit of the BWA, some of the loan is earmarked for programmes other than mains replacement.
The audit report also said, inter alia: “Personnel complained that although the materials budget is submitted at the beginning of the financial year, materials arrive in the middle of the year, thus delaying the replacement of mains. Our audit found that at October 31, 2011, BWA had not placed the order for the materials for the financial year which commenced in April 2011.”
But it gets more incredulous.
The BWA’s general manager indicated that over the past years there had been an emphasis on expansion of services and, as a result, mains rehabilitation suffered.
We ask loudly, what “services” is the BWA talking about? How can burst mains, leaking systems and a stalled rehabilitation programme be separated from “an emphasis on expansion of services”?
Then there is the question of leak detection. If water was not such a vital commodity, this situation would be hilarious, but the joke is on the consumers. Generally, the BWA depends on the general public for information
on leaks and this, obviously, occurs only when such leakage is visible on the surface. But leakage occurs below the ground and may take a long time to surface, indeed, it may never surface. So what does the BWA do under such circumstances? Nothing.
The BWA audit revealed, startlingly, that there was no programme for conducting continuous leak detection at the authority. Even more damningly, two studies in the late 1990s pointed out to Government how critical such a programme was. There is still no such programme.
The cost associated with an overall mains rehabilitation programme has seemingly terrified successive administrations but it is a course that must be undertaken. Government stands to lose more finances in the short and long term from a failing authority if the exercise is not undertaken with some dispatch. When those losses are stacked on top of the annual $90 million budget to run that agency, passing the buck or putting off the inevitable only exacerbates an already bad situation.
Meanwhile, we will wait for more notices of leaking mains and phantom water trucks.