The Barbados Water Authority (BWA) is apologizing to residents and businesses along the south coast which have had to endure renewed inconvenience over the past several weeks as an awful stench emanating from overflowing sewers again reared its ugly head. This, despite assurances earlier in the year from the state-owned utility company that it had resolved the problem following a previous outbreak.
“Regardless of blame and liability, we are empathetic and the situation is regrettable. If it has not been said before, the Barbados Water Authority wants to say that we are sorry. We are sorry that we were not able to respond in a better timeframe given the realities that we are faced with. Whether justified or not, at the end of the day we appreciate and understand the difficulty that most residents and workers have to undergo on a daily basis,” Mr Halliday told reporters following a tour of the affected area yesterday.
While the BWA may have succeeded in providing a temporary solution that allowed the problem to go away for a few months, the latest flare-up, which appears to be much worse than the last, shows it obviously had failed to address the bigger underlying issue. Otherwise, the problem would not have returned with such a vengeance. Worst of all, the stench is occurring along an important stretch of the tourist belt, days before the peak winter season is about to begin.
People are understandably upset and while Mr Halliday’s apology is appropriate in the circumstances, this may well be a case where sorry is not enough. Yesterday’s tour, which also involved two senior BWA officials – Manager of the Waste Water Division Patricia Inniss and Director of Engineering Charles Leslie – as well as acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Kenneth George, and representatives of the Ministry of Tourism, occurred hours after news broke that popular fast food outlet, Chicken Barn, was forced to close its Worthing branch because a longstanding overflowing sewer on its premises was giving rise to public health concerns.
Mr Halliday declared the situation had now reached “a national crisis”, while reiterating Government’s earlier announcement that foreign expertise would be brought into the island during the course of this week to fix the problem, described as a line blockage that has been the cause of back-ups and overflows. Mr Leslie said the BWA had “never dealt with a situation like this”.
While that may be true, it certainly is not a reasonable excuse.
All companies which provide vital services to the public, especially where the possible occurrence of an accident can have far-reaching consequences, must be prepared to deal with any eventuality. That this problem has been allowed to reach the stage of a crisis certainly raises questions about whether the BWA has an effective plan for the management of risks and crises. What is a crisis? Simply, a risk that was poorly managed, was allowed to get out of hand and to reach crisis stage.
As part of their planning, smart organizations proactively engage in risk identification exercises where assessments are made of every possible thing that can go wrong, corrective steps can be taken to nip the problem in the bud or, in cases where this may not be possible, what effectively can be done to mitigate the adverse effects, so that fallout is kept to a minimum and key stakeholder relationships are not compromised. Communication is key in this process.
It is interesting that Mr Halliday acknowledged this shortcoming.
“Perhaps part of the challenge is we have not necessarily explained all of the issues behind the press releases or the communications that we have been putting forward,” he said.
The comment identified a major problem facing many organizations here in Barbados and elsewhere. The view that putting out a press release or issuing a statement over radio or television or social media solves the problem. Often, it does not, especially during a crisis. Press releases and statements in such cases can sometimes raise more questions than provide answers, especially if they were designed without a clearly defined strategic objective.
At any rate, residences and businesses along the south coast have suffered more than enough inconvenience. However it finds it, the BWA needs to come up with an effective and lasting solution in short order, especially as tourists are already raising a stink about the stench on the south coast on global travel websites like TripAdvisor which is damaging to our tourism product at a time when Barbados needs to earn as much revenue from tourism as it can.
Here’s hoping that the promised solution finally fixes the problem.