It will be a tragedy if the consumers are left in the lurch once again and made to call for the heavens to come to their rescue when the catastrophe hits next time over
By Anil Gujadhur
Constructing the Bagatelle Dam is going in the right direction; marshalling our rivers to make them contribute their lot will be another positive step and people need to be roped in as responsible stakeholders if they are made to understand fully why they should not abuse rivers and rivulets or the underground in view of the vital role these will play to shape an environmentally safe and sustainable water self-sufficiency for the country
Now that the generosity of Nature appears to have warded off the serious water supply problem the country was running into, the question arises as to whether the water management authority, notably the Water Resources Unit of the Ministry of Energy and Public Utilities (WRU), will be able to stem the tide and safeguard us from the kind of disaster we were heading for only a couple of weeks before. For, had the leakage of nearly half of the water pumped into our aged piping system been at the heart of our water problem, as we have been told repeatedly, we would not have been getting the water at the pressure level at which it comes to our taps. The pressure in the tap would have been erratic and slower. Pipes working their way through important leaks could not have accommodated the amount of steady pressure we see at delivery point whenever the supply of water is restored by the CWA when rationing supply. This situation appears to show that other issues, beside whatever problem of water leakage may actually exist, should have affected the supply of water in the past.
It is presumed that it is the job of the WRU to set out to identify those issues and even make them public so as to obtain the cooperation of one and all towards avoiding grave situations that threaten the very lifeline of this country. We know that implementation of sound projects in the sector has not obtained the degree of priority it should have received. Had it been otherwise, more dams would have been constructed and rivers forded already to tap rainwater well before and not past the crisis. Starting work to give concrete shape to the Bagatelle Dam is a positive move in this direction.
While this project has taken long to come up and has a chequered history of its own regarding the amount of land that has finally been obtained for it (and hence its capacity to store water), one needs to probe into the factors that have kept it from happening till now. It may be that the necessary funds for dealing with improving the water supply did not come on time due to budgetary constraints. There could also be the case that the prevailing low water pricing would have failed to generate sufficient surpluses to make for the required capital investments or for the future viability of projects undertaken in the water sector.
There may even be political reasons why water could not have been priced at the appropriate level to make the sector more efficient and targeted to guarantee an adequate supply of water to different parts of the country. Since our very survival depends on the adequate supply of water, it was always possible to have recourse to funds from the Capital Budget or from development assistance to rectify the situation well in time. It is only a consideration of the relevant facts that would have helped to overcome whatever obstacles stood in the way so that the priority of ensuring an adequate supply of water was not lost sight of at the relevant time.
A sector like this on which our vital well-being depends should have been treated as top priority. Our system has failed lamentably on this score, not reckoning with the increased demand not only for domestic purposes (which constitutes a relatively small part, less than 20%, of the total supply) but for sustaining industrial and other service activities (e.g. the hospitality sector) as well. The latter have recorded significant expansion during the past decade and it was all too clear that their requirements would add up to the total water bill. Providing for developments of the sort would have accelerated work towards a greater amount of water conservation.
In the water sector, as in several others, the difficulties do not emerge all at once. There is an automatic advance signalling system arising from deficiencies surfacing up from time to time and calling for timely action to redress the situation. Follow-up actions on those leads help prevent problems from reaching near catastrophic conditions. A policy coordinator, which is up to the task, has the skills to gather data, identify likely problems well in time from the signals so received, put together the necessary funds to bridge any financing gap and thus provide for foreseeable growth in demand. It is a learning experience, which builds up on itself. Likely unmanageable situations are tackled well before they arise as an on-going self-adjustment process if this path of learning by on-going experience is adopted.
I am not saying that this might not have been the case or that the matter is not being attended to with the earnest it calls for but I am simply suggesting, in the absence of objective information publicly made available on the status of the sector, that forward planning has to be an important element into the equation all the time for bodies like the WRU. This should have been the case the more so if you knew that climatic conditions are changing (to which scientists have been alerting us for quite some time now) and making predictability of established patterns of rainwater supply more risk-prone with time. The demand for water does not increase all at once; there is a slow build-up as regards households and even the industrial sector. I am only pleading that close monitoring of the evolution of the situation represents a major input into timely decision-making to raise the water supply and avert situations of sudden dearth.
Certain exceptional growth areas may actually cause a spurt in the demand for water and they need to be identified in advance by the water authority bringing to bear essential economic information from other operators into its projections of supply and demand. In an aspiring modern economy, you cannot be caught unawares for not having built up capacity in anticipation of the demand. Was it not clear enough that road and real estate development bunching up at record rates during the preceding years would have exerted undue pressure on our limited water resources? Were not the data on those projects available with those in charge of giving permits?
The same trend should have been anticipated with respect to demand for irrigation water during prolonged droughts. In fact, the assurance of steady supply of irrigation water could have brought an agriculture-based export industry into being with proper guidance given to developers by the appropriate Ministry. Careful management would certainly have taken critical information of the sort in its forward planning.
One has to ask the question: what would a private-sector profit-motivated supplier have done in the circumstances? The greater the demand the more profits it can make: its gut reaction would have been to go for such a sector of activity in which demand will be sustained without fail.
As a business tactic, such a profit-driven supplier would use its monopoly situation to squeeze down the total supply well enough in the first instance in order to get the price to rise through the scarcity factor. Not only would it have made a vital commodity like water become more expensive and taken it out of reach for part of the population. It would also have rationalised its excess overhead costs by cutting down jobs to the minimum in the sector. It is only then that it would be seen to be acting towards increasing its investment to raise the availability of water with contracts cast in stone to protect its handsome profit margin and to perpetuate itself.
This is a compelling argument which commands that public sector water management cannot and should not fail but should rather be maintained at the state-of-the-art level backed by an efficient private-sector type management system. Short of adopting this policy, the alternative is to have to deal with extortions of profit-makers working through privatisation.
Consumers have had to bear the brunt of extensive rationing of water over so many past months. They have endured severe inconvenience with much stoicism. They deserved to be informed about the status of the action plan but they were not. The only message they got from time to time was about supply being curtailed further in view of deteriorating conditions. The least they needed to know after having gone through all these travails was what were the actions being taken to reassure that this would not be a recurring feature in the water sector.
There was a need to convince that amateurism will give way and be replaced by a strong dose of professionalism to ensure a steady supply of water. They would have understood it if they were made to become part of a scheme to avoid wastage of resources by using treated water only for the purposes it is intended for. There are many possibilities to optimize the use of water for distinct purposes and we could have travelled in this direction.
It will be a tragedy if the consumers are left in the lurch once again and made to call for the heavens to come to their rescue when the catastrophe hits next time over. Constructing the Bagatelle Dam is going in the right direction; marshalling our rivers to make them contribute their lot will be another positive step and people need to be roped in as responsible stakeholders if they are made to understand fully why they should not abuse rivers and rivulets or the underground in view of the vital role these will play to shape an environmentally safe and sustainable water self-sufficiency for the country.
* Published in print edition on 6 April 2012