Despite a multimillion-dollar mains replacement project, and other initiatives to boost overall supply capacity and address specific problems in some areas like St Philip, for example, where there has been significant population growth, the Barbados Water Authority (BWA) is grappling with serious challenges providing the entire country with a reliable supply of potable water.
The loud chorus of almost daily complaints from households across the island paints the picture of what seems to be a badly broken system in need of nothing short of a complete overhaul. The complaints have been loudest in the parishes of St Andrew, St Joseph and lately St Lucy. Residents in some districts have complained of having to go without running water for weeks in some instances because of apparent low pressure.
The indispensability of water to human existence is summed up in the BWA’s own motto Water Is Life. That some households, therefore, have to endure such inconvenience in the first quarter of the 21st century and our almost 50th year of Independence is unacceptable, especially after being slapped with a hefty increase in water rates not so long ago.
Recent images of Barbadians rushing to standpipes to fill buckets with water for household use take us back to pre-Independence life.
The woes facing the BWA, which recently moved into new multimillion-dollar headquarters in The Pine, suggest a lack of effective planning to anticipate future needs and respond by making the necessary provision. Some mains currently being replaced are more than 100 years old and would have had long passed their use-by date. This issue, therefore, should have been addressed long ago. It represented a crisis waiting to happen.
It finally took a worsening problem of outages, due to recurring breakage on some of these mains, to emphasize to Government that it was time to act. By this time, however, the problem had reached crisis proportions.
Our public sector, on the whole, tends to be a bit too reactive. It often waits until problems have reached crisis point, much to the annoyance of the public, before steps are finally taken to provide solutions.
The water crisis also points to a failure by the BWA to make provision for population shifts resulting from the many housing developments that have gone up in some parts of Barbados in the last 25 years and would have led to increased demand for water in these areas. Blame for this state of affairs must be placed squarely on the shoulders of successive Governments. Going forward, adoption of a more proactive culture is a must in any meaningful public sector reform.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Barbadians proudly boasted of having the best-run public water system in the Caribbean. In those days, the service was provided by the Water Works Department under the management of the late engineer Mr Nicky Sealy. Not only was the supply reliable, but the purity of the water was beyond question. Consumers today also complain of a deterioration in the water quality, prompting many households to resort to the use of filters.
Even though Barbados is recognized as a water-scarce country, Barbadians have legitimate reason to complain about the service offered by the BWA. The steep increase in water rates by this Government was justified on the grounds that the proceeds would be used to support an improvement in the service. Instead, there has been a deterioration.
What compounds the problem in some instances for complaining consumers is the fact that their bills sometimes do not reflect that they have been without water.
Public anger against the BWA could have been a lot worse were it not for the effective work of communications specialist Joy-Ann Haigh.
Despite having to function in an environment where it seems she constantly has to be attempting to put out fires, Ms Haig’s unswerving commitment to engage consumers experiencing problems and to provide answers to their concerns must be commended. More public sector entities which have to engage the public would do well to adopt her approach.
We look forward to the completion of the mains replacement project and other BWA initiatives in the hope that it will bring about a much needed improvement in the water service and also much needed relief for households.
We also look forward to the day when the BWA, like other utility companies on the island, finally comes under the purview of the Fair Trading Commission.