Only about 50 per cent of the Water and Sewerage Authority's (WASA) 400,000 residential customers generally receive a 24/7 water supply. During the dry season, however, the situation becomes even more critical as 35 to 40 per cent of its customers obtain the essential commodity.
For the rest of customers, the supply is not efficient or reliable, and some are left frustrated with the quality of water coming from their taps sometimes described as "muddy", "mauby coloured" among other names.
The rationing of water in various areas has become the norm. But while it has become frustrating to those customers on a limited supply, it is a disservice to the thousands who have never been able to enjoy a potable supply of water in the comfort of their homes for decades.
WASA has had to implement a water management plan forcing customers to operate with a schedule, some getting a supply twice or three times a week, others claiming they have not been getting water weeks and sometimes even months.
WASA, the company that supplies water to the citizens of T&T, was established by an Act of Parliament in 1965 to manage the water and sewerage sector of the country. An essential component of its mandate is the delivery of a safe, reliable and efficient water supply to satisfy the demand of all sectors of the economy. 55 years later and WASA has not been able to deliver on its mandate. Instead, WASA has become a burden to the State and its taxpayers.
With an annual operating cost of close to $3 billion, while earning a little less than 25 per cent of that figure in most years, WASA has to be bailed out with taxpayers' money.
A 2018 Public Accounts Committee (PAC) revealed that WASA's expenditure for the fiscal year 2017 amounted to $2.88 billion, while its income for the same period was $709 million. The shortfall of close to $2 billion was covered by a government subvention.
Over the years the authority has been saddled with a ballooning staff, poor management, extremely low water rates to customers–the lowest in the Caribbean–and ageing infrastructure. To compound this, they now have a $350-$400 million debt outstanding for contractors who provided services.
Decisive moves by former public utilities minister in the People's National Movement (PNM) administration Robert Le Hunte a month ago to start the ball rolling as he tried to turn WASA into a viable and efficient company, led to Le Hunte clashing with Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley in Cabinet and subsequently resigning over an alleged split on policy matters.
Le Hunte resigned because Cabinet did not approve his proposal for a $1.5 billion metering system. It was a project which he had worked on with the Inter-American Development Bank to eventually provide T&T a 24/7 water supply for all citizens.
Le Hunte was asked to withdraw the Cabinet note with a proposal to improve WASA’s distribution and supply of water. This, to Le Hunte, appeared to be a conflict in policy.
Le Hunte had witnessed first-hand the hardships that a large portion of the population faces due to the absence of a reliable water supply. The provision of water to all citizens in the shortest possible time was–apart from being essential–something that was very close to his heart.
The case for metering
Despite successive recommendations over the years as to how WASA could effectively serve its customers and become less dependent on the State's coffers, a former WASA CEO cited several reasons why sitting administrations have turned a blind eye to the myriad of problems plaguing the cash-strapped authority.
Dr Jim Lee Young surmised that chief among the issues hindering WASA from operating successfully was a lack of political will, corruption, poor management, union interference, and the lack of money.
He further explained, "The lack of political will to grasp the bull by the horns stems from the fact that water is seen as a right and no government wants to be seen to increase rates significantly so close to a general election. Without such rate increases, WASA will always be revenue constrained and unable to invest in their infrastructure. At the same time WASA is very inefficient compared to other water companies, again there is the lack of political will to tackle a complete restructuring as this will result in job losses."
Weighing in on the issue, Lee Young said without a metering system, it would be impossible to solve WASA's lingering problems.
"The cost of metering is easily hundreds of millions of dollars and the challenge has been and still is where will the money come from?"
He said the longer WASA took to install meters, the harder it will become.
He felt, however, that at some stage, "you are going to have to bite the bullet and meter."
Metering, Lee Young said, must be accompanied by a significant increase in water rates so that WASA does not lose revenue and can eventually pay for the meters.
The lack of metering has resulted in people wasting water, while WASA has no money to fix its decaying infrastructure.
The authority produces and distributes 240 million gallons of water daily. Approximately, 50 per cent of WASA's water is lost through leaks and theft. Daily, WASA gets about 150 leaks due to its ageing pipelines. A customer uses almost 90 gallons of water per day, although the recommended international standard is 44 gallons per day.
Only three per cent of WASA's 400,000 residential customers have meters, while 80 per cent of its commercial customers are metered. It would cost WASA between $1 billion to $1.5 billion to install meters in the home of every residential customer and between four to five years to complete the project.
WASA's water tariff is also said to be the lowest in the world, as the average household pays $3 a day. Residential customers are charged $1.75 for 220 gallons of water. The regional benchmark is US$1 per cubic metre.
Lee Young claimed WASA was practically giving away its water. “The narrative that has been observed is that when someone is metered their bill typically falls as they are more conscious of usage and conserve, thus WASA can lose significant revenue. However, this is offset by WASA's NRW (non-revenue water) dropping so there are operational cost savings." Lee Young said WASA has always and continues to lack the necessary revenue to invest and maintain their infrastructure because of its "ridiculously low rates."
Lee Young said if water rates were to rise, WASA could cover their operating expenses and provide an efficient and acceptable level of service, while at the same time remain viable and maintain their infrastructure.
Unless WASA’s customers are metered and restructuring of the cash-strapped company takes place, Lee Young said nothing will change.
"The problem, as I see it, is inadequate revenue from too low rates, combined with an inefficient organisation that is used for political patronage and influence."
Water rates in the Caribbean
1. T&T–In May 2019, WASA officials confirmed domestic rates ranged from $108 (TT) to $304 per quarter or about $1.20 to $3.38 per day. Industrial rates based on metered usage ranged from $3.50 cubic metre to $12.00 per cubic metre.
2. Grenada–In November 2019, officials estimated that a single consumer currently paid EC$8 for the first 1,000 gallons of water.
3. Barbados–In July 2009, over 40 cubic metres–$7.78 per m3–up from $4.86. The new rate structure for fixed-rate customers will range from $29.44 to $117.76 per month, up from between $18.40 and $73.60; while the rate for commercial customers is now $4.66 per cubic metre (m3), up from $2.91 and the ship's rate is $8.08 up from $5.05.
Cost to repair WASA's lingering woes
It would cost WASA $12.7 billion to fix some of its water supply and distribution networks.
*$10 billion–To replace 7,200 kilometres of ageing pipelines.
*$1.2 billion–To install water meters at homes, businesses and in industrial areas.
*$1 billion–To fix inter-connectivity issues.
*$500 million–To improve the water storage capacity.
'No desire to carry out a rate review'
Lee Young, who was also an executive director at the Regulated Industries Commission, left the commission in March. During his two-year tenure, Lee Young said, the issue of increasing water rates had been reinforced. Lee Young said although both WASA and T&TEC urgently require increases in their rates, "There is no desire at this time to allow the regulator to carry out a rate review."
Claiming that management issues were another major factor affecting WASA’s performance, Lee Young said it was overstaffed–a fact the 2018 PAC confirmed as they found WASA was operating with 2,000 more employees than it needed.
When he joined WASA in 2009, Lee Young said its workforce was around 4,300. With restructuring, they were able to reduce the figure to under 4,000 a year later.
In September 2018, chairman of WASA Romney Thomas in a Guardian Media article said WASA had 5,150 employees on the payroll which included permanent, contract and temporary workers. At the time, he said, WASA spent over $1.1 billion annually in salaries. Thomas calculated WASA’s monthly wage bill was $91 million.
Asked what would be a reasonable workforce for WASA, Lee Young explained, "A commonly used metric to measure the efficiency of a water utility is the number of employees per thousand customers."
In developed countries, the ratio is typically around three to five employees per thousand customers.
"In Barbados, it is around eight. WASA is around 14 to 15. On a comparative basis, WASA is very efficient. If you assume WASA has 400,000 customers then applying the Barbados metric of eight WASA should only have 3,200 employees."
Should WASA be privatised?
Lee Young said he would not support such a move, "At this time the proper regulatory oversight required to manage a private water utility and to ensure that customers are not disadvantaged, does not currently exist."
However, Lee Young said he would "support a restructuring along the lines of a Petrotrin/Heritage approach and remove all political meddling and union interference."
He said there was a need to "put a good executive management team in place and let them do what they have to do.”
Although many feasibility reports were done on WASA over the years, Lee Young said one can only surmise why the recommendations from these reports were not implemented or whether they attempted and failed.
He speculated, "Probable reasons are likely lack of political will, problems are too difficult, no money, unions' incompetence and corruption."
WASA chairman speaks
In a recent telephone interview, WASA chairman Romney Thomas denied that there were plans to sell WASA to a Chinese firm. Thomas said the information circulating on social media was fake.
“I don't know anything about that. As far as I am aware, that is not true."
Regarding how much WASA owed contractors, Thomas admitted it was "significant sums of money. The last check I remembered from our system was close to $350 million to $400 million."
Those payments, Thomas said, were accumulated over time. "We have been making arrangements to pay all verified claims over time."
Asked to confirm if one contractor was owed $100 million, Thomas did not say.
Asked why WASA continues to be faced with ongoing issues, Thomas said the problems facing the authority did not develop overnight.
He offered no comment as to what would be their next step with its metering plan.
In an interview with Guardian Media last year, Le Hunte said if WASA were to privatise, the water company would be able to provide better service but customers would have to pay more for water.
"Privatisation comes with a cost. Where I am, the Government is not looking at privatising WASA. What I have been doing is using the private sector approach in an attempt to improve WASA's inefficiencies."
Le Hunte gives the figures
In May 2019, Le Hunte said it would cost WASA close to $13 billion to fix some of the major issues affecting the water supply and distribution network. In 2017, Le Hunte stated, WASA's residential, commercial and industrial customers had owed the authority over $700 million in arrears which they were trying to recover, while contractors and vendors had submitted unvalidated claims of $198 million.
Le Hunte said WASA had been encountering internal management issues.
"WASA is part of a bigger problem of accountability and management issues that we have in T&T and in our State enterprises."
Le Hunte's predecessor, Ancil Antoine, in May 2015, said his predecessor Ganga Singh undertook an extensive and expensive pipe-laying exercise across the country.
In October 2013, Singh claimed when they entered office in 2010 only 18 per cent of the country had been receiving water 24/7, whilst 38 per cent of the country was getting water five days a week.
Singh claimed that within three years the People's Partnership regime had been able to increase the 24/7 water supply to 49 per cent of the country, while 75 per cent of the country was getting water five days a week.
In November 2014, then prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar praised Singh for increasing the daily water supply figures to its customers to 69 per cent in Trinidad, and 70 per cent in Tobago.
Beetham Waste-Water Treatment Plant wasteful, ill-conceived
In May 2019, Le Hunte described the Beetham Wastewater Treatment Plant contracted to Super Industries Services (SIS) as a wasteful and ill-conceived project that cost taxpayers close to $1 billion without producing one drop of water.
He said officials were forced to consider that $1 billion as a loss as any attempt to move forward with it would have cost an additional US$250 million (TT$1.9 billion), to only produce ten million gallons of water.
Le Hunte said the investment was not salvageable, other than WASA using some of the pipes from the discontinued project to help in pipeline distribution in other areas.
In 2015, the National Gas Company (NGC) awarded the contract to SIS for the design and build of the recycling plant, together with pipelines and water storage facilities.
SIS did not even finish half of the job when it stopped work on the project after the Government changed following the 2015 general election. It was reported that SIS’s Krishna Lalla allegedly left the country. Over 75 per cent of the money had been spent on the project by the UNC administration.
Severn Trent a waste of taxpayers' $$
Former WASA director and trade unionist Clyde Weatherhead has described the US$50 million contract awarded to Severn Trent to turn WASA around as a colossal failure.
The British-based firm was among several organisations/teams retained over the years to make WASA viable and efficient. Weatherhead said every Government which came into power "played politics" with WASA.
Severn Trent was one of five companies that had submitted bids to manage the authority in 1995. Their scope of works involved improving WASA's revenues, leak reduction, replacement of ageing pipelines, installation of metres, develop water storage, debt collection, staff reduction and to privatise WASA.
He said privatisation back then involved putting WASA into the hands of a private firm to manage.
The news of Severn Trent, Weatherhead said, came after WASA had sent home 978 workers in 1993. When word got around that Severn Trent had won the contract in managing WASA’s affairs, Weatherhead said the Public Services Association, National Union and Government Federated Workers and T&T Police Association came up with an “alternative plan” which they presented to then public utilities minister Ganga Singh.
Their proposal, described as a plagiarism of Severn Trent’s plan, was rejected.
Weatherhead, who served as PSA president for four years, said the unions' view was that the contract should have been terminated. He said if that was done, all the Government would have had to pay Severn Trent was a $5 million mobilisation fee.
Weatherhead said when Severn Trent came on board, they wanted to sell WASA a software called "storms" to tackle leakages and water wastages for US$2.5 million which the board was not in agreement with. To the unions’ surprise, Weatherhead said, the board was eventually overruled and the software purchased. How the software addressed the issue of the leaks, he said, was the big question as WASA continues to lose a large percentage of its water daily through ruptured pipelines.
He said during the three years Severn Trent managed WASA, the delivery of water never improved. That project, Weatherhead said, turned into a "colossal waste" of taxpayers’ money.
"The proof of the pudding is in the eating. We have no better water service today."
He said Severn Trent was trying to use T&T as a gateway to enter Latin America. "There was a fight among six companies in the world to control water and Severn Trent was one of them...What they sold as a plan to the Government to improve WASA it did not happen. By the time Severn Trent left here the objective of that contract never materialised."
He said WASA has never provided a reliable service while the promise of water for all by 2000 was never achieved.
In the 1980s he said the idea of metering was established but almost four decades later it remains outstanding.
Having served WASA's board from 1995 to 1997, Weatherhead said apart from Severn Trent, then prime minister Patrick Manning brought in a "Dream Team" to deal with the issues plaguing WASA but that too fell short. He said the Beetham Wastewater Treatment Plant was another project that was left hanging after millions had been spent. Other plans were also put forward, Weatherhead said, but nothing worked.
He said what was needed to turn around WASA was political will and finances.
"WASA is a utility that no Government has seriously tackled.”