For the last quarter of a century at least, we have known that Barbados is a water-scarce country.
For decades, the people of the Scotland District, home to the highest elevations of the land, have been more aware of this than perhaps anyone else.
So with that in mind, we express relief on their behalf, at the Prime Minister’s announcement over the weekend that over the next year, Government would seek to alleviate this problem with new infrastructural work on the national water system.
She said: “We have agreed to fund a capital works programme dedicated to deliver water to the lower elevations in St Joseph, St John, St Andrew, and St Lucy, such that water being delivered from the Golden Ridge, Bowmanston and Hampden pumping stations can be used purely for the higher elevations.
“We will put in a new pumping house at Vineyard (St Philip), so we will have to build a new reservoir at Stewart Hill, run pipe from Stewart Hill to the East Coast, and we will have to equally address the problem from the north as well.
“Now, if we can supply water properly to the East Coast, we can guarantee we can preserve the water at Golden Ridge, Hampden and Bowmanston for the northern elevations.”
This work is estimated to cost some $15 million initially, but, for want of a better expression, it is a proverbial drop in the bucket when it comes to addressing the problems in the water supply network.
Earlier this year in the House of Assembly, Minister of Water Resources Wilfred Abrahams revealed: “Our water mains are over 150 years old so they break and burst all the time.
“Barbados has 2,500 kilometres of water mains, and the estimate to re-lay those mains is over one million dollars per kilometre, so if we were to change all the mains, you are looking at $2.5 billion at today’s costs.
“Our reservoir network is also ageing and needs rebuilding.”
He continued: “The water wells and mains were designed over 100 years ago when the island’s population was much smaller. So a main that once served 2,500 people are now serving 25,000, and reservoirs tend to be located at the highest point in a district, so when gravity pushes the water down to supply people’s homes, by the time it gets to the lowest point, all the water has been used up.
“That was why the Water Authority was engaging in the strategic shut-offs, which also meant that they had to bypass certain reservoirs and pull water from others so people could get a supply.
“And what happens here too is that when you increase the pressure on an old network of pipes, it causes them to rupture, and sometimes it is difficult to detect where the leaks are.”
This begs the question of who expected these mains supposed to last forever?
Why was so little thought given to the eventual replacement when the old network of pipes outlived its usefulness due to rust and cracks when for decades we have estimated our water losses at a high of 63 per cent?
What we have seen is a water replacement programme which began in the previous administration that was already several years behind schedule and seemingly obsolete the moment it was completed.
In his presentation, Abrahams mentioned building new reservoirs, and we see that such efforts are taking place at both Stewart Hill in St John and Fort George in St Michael.
But he ruled out the possibility of more desalination plants, saying that it was a costly venture at this time. He said: “Presently, it costs us 46 cents per unit to pump normal potable water out of the ground.
“This same amount from brackish desalinated water, which is a combination of groundwater and saltwater costs a dollar.
“Desalinated water sourced directly from the sea costs $4 a unit, so if we bring more desalination plants online, our annual water supply expenses would increase by over $100 million, and we simply cannot afford that.”
We certainly hope we have not thrown our hands up in the air at the prohibitive cost of upgrading the network, whether by repairing the old supply network or bringing more desalination plants on stream. Surely, maintaining the status quo is not acceptable.
There is an old question, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer: “One bite at a time”.
There are understandably several priorities occupying the State’s time and resources, but water is the most important human need.
The BWA’s team of engineers should release the results of a study to determine the most severely damaged or heavily used parts of the water network, and start upgrading the mains network using the latest available materials and technology to not only meet our present-day needs, but also provide room for expansion to serve us well for the next 50 or more years – especially when there are so many big projects planned for our immediate future.
Some of the largest capital works projects should be made to install local desalination plants as part of buildings, especially if they are on the beachfront, and incentives should be given to any potential investors who want to set up these plants, particularly in parts of the country which are parched for most of the year.
But right now, while we applaud the declaration of war on the water woes of the Scotland District, we are still minded to ask, is this not a mere drop in the bucket?