The CWA and Our Recurrent Water Problem
Will the departure of Harry Boolauck remedy the water problem?
The Prime Minister made a statement this week to the effect that he has heard about the problem of old pipes of the Central Water Authority (CWA) being prone to leakage and wastage of large quantities of water for quite long. He appeared to be exasperated with the repetition of the same and added that redress action will be taken even if it meant that sanctions have to be taken against non-performers belonging to Labour. This statement was intended to show his determination to deal with a current situation in which the CWA is resorting to water rationing and drastic cuts in the supply of water in most parts of the island.
Many will applaud if on the 17th December, the contract of Harry Boolauck, Director-General of the CWA, were not renewed. In this land of ritual celebration of the victory of good over evil, many will find their faith vindicated by such an action, irrespective of whether it is the man who actually deserves the axe. For them, the sacrifice was necessary as a consummation of a deeply-held belief. We have actually been in the process of tumbling from one allegedly wrong nomination to another, in a sort of a general pattern of failure. Many will derive sheer pleasure because they get a feeling of personal superiority whenever they see one or other of the “dieux du stade” being disparaged. You have to listen to the private radios whenever heads are made to roll, to understand the cheer and self-vindictiveness with which even the most ordinary of mortals express their glee. It is as if it is they who have felled the hero of yesterday. There are others still who will take great delight in a dismissal of the sort because it will be yet another nominee from the Labour stable that would have been found unfit to carry out the work he was assigned, as forming part of some sort of a general invisible rule that appointees from political stables are generally incompetent and that they are there because the government needed to reward them with a post, irrespective of merit.
Yet, the fundamental question that everybody should have been asking is quite different. Will the departure of Harry Boolauck remedy the water problem? In other words, is this a sheer management problem? Or, is there a deeper underlying reason why we are teetering on the brink of disaster whenever the rains have been absent for a relatively not exceedingly long period?
For many years now, the entire world has been debating on means and measures to adopt so as not to have to face up a situation of inadequate availability of water in different parts of the world. It is a serious issue as, in certain cases, it can even lead to “water wars” among countries given the importance of this precious liquid to the very sustenance of life. Climatic factors, galloping global demography, growing intensity of water usage in industrial processes are among the reasons why water is predicted to become even more scarce in the years to come. We do not fortunately have to dispute with neighbours about water sharing rights; otherwise, this could have become yet one more sore point. But we have a macro problem having little or nearly nothing to do with individual water managers. Harry Boolauck is certainly not the source of the bigger problem in such a perspective. Disbanding him may serve to “calm down the plebeians” temporarily but it will be nothing better than a psychological safety valve ignoring the real problem. His replacement, if any, will be back to square one unless a solution is found to the fundamental problem in this case.
What is this fundamental problem? Since independence, the only tangible advancement we have made in the matter of storing adequate supplies of water has been in the construction of the Midlands Dam that was inaugurated after years of work during the previous mandate of the government. It added another 25 cubic million gallons of water to our reserves, equivalent to the full capacity of the venerable old Mare-aux-Vacoas. Yet the population has more than doubled. Water-intensive industrial activity and tourism sectors have expanded many-fold. Certainly, the addition to supply by the Midlands Dam has not been commensurate with the growing demand. Some of the pipes transporting water from the high-gravity parts of the island to the lower regions must be in the region of a hundred years old and hence requiring urgent replacement and modernisation for decades. Others have been battered by works carried out by other departments and left to leak out whatever water they were transporting to their supposed destinations. Absence of coordination of this type has been the hallmark of our development. In other words, we have not deployed the necessary resources to even prevent whatever little water we have been able to store and distribute to good purpose. Needless to add that when the rains really drop down, we see a lot of flooding and loss of precious water that could have been harnessed.
There are two factors at least at the basis of this fundamental failure to tap and retain an essential and basic element for our day-to-day needs. One is the failure of those in positions to take strategic decisions to conceptualise the issue and give out an enduring solution. This work should most apparently have been the responsibility of the Ministry in charge, and perhaps the Water Resources Unit of that Ministry. It cannot shift its failure to assume its responsibility in time to the Director-General of the CWA who is made to wear the cap of the rain-god. The second factor relates to the financial resources made available to develop this essential infrastructure. It costs money to build new dams although it costs nothing to keep speaking about the construction of new dams like Bagatelle Dam about which we’ve been hearing for the “bagatelle” 10 past years or so without the first spade being dug up in the soil. It costs money to replace pipes that have gone decrepit. It costs courage to charge consumers more for their daily water supplies to garner enough funds to meet capital expenditures even though we have to concede that water is in the nature of a public good for which it is the State that should bear the major part of costs.
We have been told that foreign experts will come and advise how to run our water system so that it does not break down from time to time. What is the use of such expertise when it is quite clear that the fundamental problem has been one of insufficient allocation of resources to restore a sector towards greater efficiency? At one time, we were being told that we should give it out to foreign companies to better manage our water. This is nonsense. One just has to recall how our telecoms sector has failed on its mission for having taken this kind of decision. We have reached a stage when we will have to cease looking for scapegoats and head on rather to address the real shortcomings arising from insufficient decision-taking and failure to adequately finance a sector on which our daily livelihood depends.