After the prolonged drought, the floods

By Anil Gujadhur

The country was running seriously short of water last year. Mare aux Vacoas reservoir had fallen to such a low level that urgent arrangements had to be made to divert water from Mare Longue reservoir into it. Other water storages were running short just the same. Underground water reserves, which account a good part of our total supply, were also drying up fast. All this led to a severe regime of water rationing across the country. It looked as if we were making the best out of a catastrophic situation that appeared to have gone entirely out of our control. But this was one only of a series of system failures. We have had recurring situations of water shortage in the past.

Explanations were tendered last year, just as in years past whenever water rationing was resorted to, that the shortage was partly attributable to nearly half the purified water pumped into the water supply system being lost en route through leakages in old pipes that had run out of their useful life. If that argument was valid, why on earth was action not taken to redress the situation over the number of years those pipes were in disrepair? In any case, one does not look for explanations when a situation turns out as bad. One looks for remedies at the earliest at the macro level.

Water security

A critical area like water cannot be left to fend for itself to renew its fundamental infrastructure (appropriate piping, water storage capacity, manageable distribution network, etc) only after it has generated enough surplus capital of its own through higher water pricing. While water cannot continue to be sold to users at throwaway prices for the sake of political convenience, thus impairing the sector’s viability, water supply cannot also be viewed in isolation. The country’s water security goes beyond sectorial considerations. If money is not made available to it, by raising foreign loans if need be, for the necessary timely development because of current budgetary concerns, the problem of water shortages will persist due to the myopic view taken of the matter.

Fortunately, we’ve been having a steady period of rainfall since late last year. This has led to an improvement in the water level both in reservoirs and underground. But the rationing regime is still being maintained. In some regions, this strict water regime raised tempers to such a point that in January last, water users went out to attack the water tanker supplying their region. In February, rains have fallen more abundantly causing an appreciable increase in the amount of water stored in our reservoirs. Rivers swelled above their banks in some parts of the country. The meteorological station even issued a notice of torrential rainfall for Monday last.

Various parts of the country experienced flooding last week and this week. Vehicles were stranded on some of the flooded roads which included those at the city centre linking the north and the south of the country. It was claimed that the water was logged partly because the design of certain new road constructions was not conducive to its swift evacuation. Outlets proved inadequate to ferry away the water volumes accumulated over a short interval of time. Other places were flooded because wanton throwing around of waste had blocked certain normal waterways, causing water levels to breach riverbanks. In other cases, random constructions and developments which had taken place in the interval interfered with the natural drainage system, which led to the flooding of residences, rising up to two metres in some cases.

We live in a country where a lot of activities are carried out on an ad hoc basis. The importance of geophysical considerations in concept and design must have been absent in many cases for constructions to have come in the way of normal water evacuation channels wherever this was the case in the latest incidents. So, people construct at random and permits are delivered irrespective of whether the constructions obstruct natural waterways that have been here for a long time. Consequences of inconsiderate permit-giving for morcellement and other real estate development projects are realized only after the catastrophe has struck.

Fact Finding Committee

In 2008, Judge Domah made out a report recommending actions to be taken to avoid future cases of death by drowning in a specific area of the country, which was the event that had occasioned the commissioning of his Fact Finding Committee in the first place. In particular, the report of his Fact Finding Committee asked for an integrated water evacuation plan to be laid down and mapping out the country’s flood prone areas so that pre-emptive action could have been taken. Whether and to what extent those recommendations have actually been implemented, remains unknown. But the spate of recent flooding in different parts of the country shows that the risk remains live to this day. It points out to a serious absence of coordination among decision-makers in the country’s physical layout.

Mauritius is surely not the only place which is affected by such natural catastrophes. Other places in engineering-advanced countries also get under huge swathes of water from time to time. It is the price to pay if natural waterways are obstructed or if record amounts of rainfall are registered over relatively short periods as a freak of nature. In our case, we appear to have moved from one extreme of serious water scarcity to another of flooding over a relatively short space of time. This kind of reversals calls for long term careful planning so that we are hit neither by prolonged dearth of water nor by life-threatening overflows.

Water management is going to be a critical factor in the future survival of nations and it was time those responsible for it in our case had started taking it responsibly. One would have expected the Water Resources Unit to be implementing several projects such as the construction of additional water storage capacity, improving the piping network, fording rivers so that all the surplus water does not go out to the sea and coming up with a strategic water sufficiency plan covering our comprehensive needs over several decades.

That would have avoided the constant weakening of the water sector, as it has been the case so far, acting as a precondition to throw us into the arms of foreign predators stood up as strategic partners even in a sector such as the water sector. We cannot end up playing in the hands of so-called outside experts because we cannot bring our act together time and again. It will be difficult for the funding ministry, notably the Ministry of Finance, to resist the argument that our water management should be backed up as a priority by providing the necessary funds.

Someone someday will have to professionalize the full chapter of our water management so that we don’t become losers when there is too little rainfall and when there is plenty of it as well. This is the situation right now. It looks like a vital area has been receiving casual attention. Delays to kick off projects have come with a cost. The population has been made to pay the price of such inefficiency at harnessing a resource which, to say the least, nature has provided us generously.

We can only hope that despite our serious management deficit in the water sector, we have enough of domestic expertise to address the task with the diligence it calls for. If so, we will not need to call in foreign expertise to keep our house in order.

* Published in print edition on 22 February 2013

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