The time for discussions and dilly-dallying is over. We need to go ahead with the construction of the La Flora Dam and the Chamarel Dam immediately
In order to see the way forward to our water crisis, it is important to understand the root cause of the problem before proposing solutions.
Fundamentals have changed on several fronts, be it climatic, economic or social. These changes have impacted upon our water consumption, not only in terms of quantity but also in terms of pattern.
The global warming of the atmosphere has brought about major changes in our hydrological cycle. The average rate of decrease of the mean annual rainfall is now of the order of 57mm. This averages 8% for the past 10 years as compared to the 1950s.
Significantly this has caused the Mauritius Meteorological Services to highlight the following facts (courtesy extracts from Mauritius Meteorological Services website):
• A lengthening of the intermediate dry season, the transition period between winter and summer, has been observed.
• There has been a shift in the start of the summer rains. This shift in the onset of the rains is highly significant as it translates into much pressure on the water sector to meet increasing demands of the agricultural, tourism, industrial and domestic sectors.
• The number of consecutive dry days is increasing while the number of rainy days is decreasing.
• Even though the number of rainy days is decreasing, heavy rainfall events leading to numerous flash floods and temporary interruption of certain socio-economic activities during the summer months of February and March has increased.
• The frequency of extreme weather events, heavy rains and storms of tropical cyclone strength or higher, has increased significantly over the last two decades.
• Long term mean annual rainfall (1971-2000) over the Island is 2010 mm. The wettest months are February and March. The driest month is October.
• Mean summer rainfall (1971-2000) is 1344 mm, which is 67% of the annual amount over the Island. Mean winter rainfall (1971-2000) is 666 mm. Although there is no marked rainy season, most of the rainfall occurs in summer months.
Clearly, we are now in a situation where we are receiving much less water from the skies. The amount of rainfall required to fill our existing impounding reservoirs and to bring the phreatic lines of our underground storages to normal is on a reduction trend.
Our domestic water is supplied in the following ratio: 52% from boreholes and 48% from the surface catchments. In a normal year we receive an average volume of 3 900 million m3 of water of which only some 30 per cent is collected. However, because of the micro-climatic conditions prevailing over the island, this volume is not distributed equally across the land. Therefore the need for the use of storage structures such as dams and reservoirs.
Presently we have a storage capacity of one year. This storage capacity is distributed unevenly across the island but quite satisfactorily enough that it sees us through during a normal year. Any shortfall of the rainfall be it in a particular area, results in a discrepancy in storage. We are then in a stress situation.
On the economic front, we are resolutely engaged in a development process. Projects like Jin Fei, NeoTown, IRS, RES, are already coming out of the grounds. These will be heavy water consumers and are awaiting for us at the corner.
On the social front the situation is not brighter. High rise apartments are mushrooming in our towns, particularly Quatre Bornes, Curepipe, Vacoas and Rose Hill. Albeit that it is not clear as to the provisions that have been made to supply them with water without impacting on the already meagre presently available resources. Further, with the improvement of the quality of life of our citizens, water consumption which is presently estimated at 160 litres per day is scheduled to reach 200 litres per day in the medium term. This has brought the OCDE to conclude that by the year 2020 Mauritius is scheduled to become a water scarce region.
Over the years we have seen a plethora of experts and consultants trying their hands at resolving our water problems. In the eighties the Britishers came and went. The nineties saw the French presence at the CWA and when they departed the Indians came in. In spite of all this, the fundamentals of the problems have not changed and we are still talking about making the CWA a more efficient organisation with the objective of delivering a better water supply to us.
To understand the present status of the CWA it suffices to observe a team at work when a repair work is being carried out on the road.
A rickety vehicle, which is the mode of transport, is parked on the side. The traffic signs are inappropriate if not totally absent. The workers are ill equipped in terms of safety gears and tools. When the work is over, the backfilling is carried out and what appears to be a molehill is left on the road. This state of affairs is prevailing when it is already a decade since we have entered into the twenty first century.
It is therefore clear that the time for discussions and dilly-dallying is over. Since the construction of the Midlands Dam in 1999 and the ongoing Bagatelle Dam no major effort has been made towards improving the water supply in Mauritius by successive governments. We need to go ahead with the construction of the La Flora Dam and the Chamarel Dam immediately. These works will ensure that water will not be an impediment to the development of our country and at the same time constitute a strategic reserve allowing us to sail smoothly through the challenges ahead.
Implementing the construction of the dams and the ancillary works requires substantial investments. Presently the cost of water for domestic purposes, which accounts for some 70% of the total consumption, is abysmally low. At an average of Rs 5.00 per cubic meter, it is less than ONE CENT per litre. This is unacceptable. In view of the substantial investments required it would be irresponsible for any government not to assume its responsibility by increasing the water tariff and thereby generate at least some of the funds needed.
Likewise it would be unpatriotic for anybody to oppose an increase in water tariff. Sacrifices are required from one and all if we are to see us through the woods as far as water supply is concerned. The Prime Minister has promised that the water improvement works will not be financed through an increase in tariff. However finance does not come for free and at the end of the day the population will have to foot the bill one way or the other.
Presently availability of a regular and safe water supply is one of the major stresses of the population. True this situation is due to the inaction of successive governments for the past 30 years. However in 2014 when the country is going to the polls, the Labour Party will have been in power for a continuous period of ten years. It is not perceived as having solved the problem or generated a comfort feeling in the population and as such there may be a price to be paid.
* Published in print edition on 28 November 2014