Water Woes: Water Wars

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This article by Tony Deyal first appeared in the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce Contact Magazine Vol.13 No 1 2013).

I just read a news release from the Water Authority of one of our Caribbean neighbours. It boasts that the Authority’s services will become more efficient because meter readers will now carry ‘mobile’ or hand-held computers. The Authority assured consumers that despite the cost of the new equipment, it has no ‘immediate’ plans to increase the water bill.

This approach to water is shared by the entire Caribbean. The focus is more on revenue collection than on winning and distributing water efficiently. Beyond this preoccupation with making it easier to find out how much people owe on their water ‘rates’ or bills, and cutting off their supply if they are in arrears, there is a much greater global problem that poses considerable negative consequences for humanity as a whole.

The issue is not just the management of water resources or their distribution to the population, it is not how water is used or how much; it is whether water is a commodity to be sold to the citizenry by governments or private agencies, or whether it is a right of citizenship. Should we pay for water, or should it be free-to-all, or even a free-for-all?

Dr Gurdev Singh, head of water technology at the Environmental and Water Technology Centre of Innovation in Singapore, has a balanced perspective on who owns the water and whether the population should pay for its use. Dr Singh states, “There will always be arguments that water, which is critical to human life, should be free or at least heavily subsidised. However, to ensure that a robust system can be put in place to provide high-quality water sustainably, a fair tariff that balances the costs of the system and allow for future improvements should be practised.”

Many people oppose Dr Singh’s belief in any kind of tariff or tax. While the debate is taking place globally and getting increasingly vociferous, and, in some places and cases, violent, countries that never had a problem with water are finding that their water resources are fast becoming inadequate and that they cannot guarantee a continuity of flow of potable water to their citizens in future.

What does this mean for the Caribbean?

Many people will say that they never had such a guarantee of water in the first place. I grew up in Siparia, a rural oil town in oil-rich Trinidad where we were lucky to get water for a few nights of the week. We had to try to store as much as possible. There are communities that considered us lucky because we occasionally got water and they never had any.

THIRD WORLD STANDARDS

Even now, as Trinidad and Tobago boasts about First-World status, the water situation and service would be less than Third World were it not for the fact that ‘third’ is the present lowest limit for the descent into economic chaos.

There are many reasons for this, some both cause and effect of the poor state of the water resources of most Caribbean countries.

A major concern is that governments should not be involved in providing services or in owning or managing utilities. They should stick to developing, in conjunction with stakeholders, policies that take into account the needs of rural communities and the poor, but should not yield to the temptation of simultaneously making policy, facilitating development, creating a supportive environment, and implementing plans and programmes for which they have neither the time, expertise nor entrepreneurial spirit.

If you try to be chief cook and bottle-washer all at once, the food will burn, the bottles will break, and you will be out of a job. In fact, by raising the expectations of the citizenry, several governments have lost their mandates. Water for all continues to be a pipe dream and a broken promise. Until the governments tap into the resources of the private sector, the national water problem is not likely to be solved.

While there are historical problems with the management of water resources and inherited infrastructural deficiencies, including leaking underground pipelines, the real culprit right now is climate change.

Let’s take the case of Trinidad and Tobago. The first prime minister, Dr Eric Williams, once described elections as coming like a thief in the night. In Trinidad, climate change descended like a fox on a henhouse. Unfortunately, it did not restrict its depredations only to nocturnal periods, but like the village rum shop, it is 24/7.

Caroni Ltd, the national sugar company, was the first to experience and the last to understand climate change. Every year the company scheduled its ‘crop’, or harvest, for January since, at that time, the country had two distinct seasons, not cricket and football, but dry and wet (which were effectively the same). Then the company found out in the late 1970s to the ’90s that the rainy season had started to extend into January and even early February.

Recently, the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) experienced the same problem. It scheduled its regional T20 tournament for January in Trinidad. Rain disrupted many of the games.

CLIMATE CHANGE THREAT

Over the years, not just in 2013, climate change also destroyed the expectations, and then the livelihoods, of many farmers. Subject to the vagaries of wind, weather and water, unexpected floods and droughts, freak storms and cyclones, victims of climate change, something which had no name at the time, only symptoms, many farmers found the going tough and sought respite in alternative sources of employment driving taxis or working on government projects.

While the nation’s oil wealth has been blamed for its extremely high food-import bill and critics bemoan the lack of food security which can leave any country defenceless in times of disaster, it is neither laziness nor government make-work projects that have caused the present decline and downfall of agriculture. It is the nation’s inability to come to terms with the downside of climate change and to treat the situation as urgent.

Now, not even the weather experts who rely solely on historical data can predict the seasons. Call it chaos theory or climate change, whether it is the beating of a butterfly’s wings over Australia or global warming, the weather in most Caribbean countries consists of periods of short, sporadic, torrential rain interspersed by longer periods of drought.

The annual rainfall statistics remain the same but the distribution or spread has changed. The downside of climate change is upon us all – more hurricanes and cyclones, and increasing mosquito indices and cases of dengue fever.

There are now as many dengue outbreaks as there are periods of heavy rainfall. Additionally, unchecked climate change also means the intrusion of pesticides as well as salt water into the water table. Desalination, as the records show, is an option, but has proven to be extremely expensive for Trinidad and Tobago and some of the other countries.

During the height of the oil boom, there notion was floated of acquiring a titanic iceberg and anchoring it just outside the Port-of-Spain harbour to provide fresh water to the country. This, like the idea of BWIA as a regional carrier, did not fly.

So, like the Ancient Mariner in Samuel Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, there is an albatross hanging around our necks, and it is getting heavier by the minute. It, too, will not fly. Pretty soon, the entire region may reach the critical point of ‘water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink’. In other words, the worst is yet to come.

CHANGING NEEDS

On February 25, 2013, CNN ran an article titled ‘The Coming Water Wars’, which made the point: “Conflicts over water are as old as the story of Noah – in 3,000 BC. The Pacific Institute lists 225 such conflicts through history. What’s fascinating is that nearly half of those conflicts took place in the last two decades. Are we going to see a new era of wars fought over water?”

The article continued, “Part of the problem is that the world’s needs have changed. Look at the population boom. We’ve gone from four billion people in 1975, to around seven billion today. The United Nations projects we will hit nine billion by 2050. Meanwhile, as India, China, and Africa continue to add millions to their middle classes, global demand for all kinds of foods and products will increase. All of those products cost money – except for water, which we like to think of as abundant and free.

Yet water is the resource we need to worry most about. According to the World Health Organisation, more than 780 million people – that’s two and a half times the population of the United States – lack access to clean water. More than three million people die every year from this shortage. As our needs expand, so will the shortfall.”

This is a chilling prospect even for those who want to import icebergs. Climate change is causing the icebergs to melt rather than float. The floats in our toilet tanks are set to high volumes and we use potable or drinking water for that as well. World Bank economist, Ismail Serageldin, puts the situation succinctly. He maintains, “The wars of the 21st century will be fought over water.”

There will be room for vision and entrepreneurship. There will be opportunities to leverage new technologies that will provide more water at possibly lower prices. Already there are innovations in agriculture that will help drought-ridden areas. Improved irrigation practices have reduced the quantities of water necessary for economically viable agriculture. Recycling of ‘grey’ water and ‘black’ water, improved sewage treatment and composting provide options to the use of potable water for use in toilets and additional organic materials for small-scale agriculture.

However, the prospect right now is ominous, and increasingly the battles will not be between nations but within nations. The question that will be asked by everyone is, “Whose water is it, does it belong to the government or private enterprise, or does it belong to the citizens?”

Tony Deyal, who works in climate change and environmental health communication, was last seen saying that the plan to import an iceberg failed because nobody knew how large an ice pick would be needed to get it to fit in the reservoir.

For the original report go to http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20130630/focus/focus6.html

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