It is the same sorry tale of water shortage and cuts that is heard every year whenever it has not rained for only a short period. It is put down to the problem of old pipes of the Central Water Authority (CWA) being prone to leakage and wastage of large quantities of water, of the order of 60% at the latest count. This is despite the billions of rupees that have gone into the replacement of long stretches of pipes and lately the increased water retention capacity with the construction of the Bagatelle dam. The public express their exasperation when water cuts or revised distribution schedules are announced, and politicians in power again start talking about redress action to be taken even if it means that sanctions have to be taken against non-performers. One wonders whether the recurrent water problem is due to a sheer management problem? Or is there a deeper underlying reason?
For many years now, the entire world has been debating means and measures to adopt so as not to have to face 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 water for 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. Fortunately 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 that has to be addressed.
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 and the Bagatelle Dam. The Midlands Dam has added another 25 cubic million gallons of water to our reserves, equivalent to the full capacity of the Mare-aux-Vacoas reservoir. 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.
As for the Bagatelle Dam, completed in December 2016, and its Treatment Plant inaugurated last year, it is supposed to add some 60000m3/day to the water network and supply Plaine Wilhems and Port Louis. Why this is not happening is still a mystery to which no clear answer has been provided to the public. Some of the pipes transporting water from the high-gravity parts of the island to the lower regions must be about a hundred years old, and have been in need of 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 process. In other words, we have not deployed the necessary resources to even retain whatever little water we have been able to store and distribute to good purpose. Needless to add that when the rains come pouring down, there is a lot of flooding and loss of precious water that could have been harvested and stored.
There are two factors at least underlying this fundamental failure to tap and retain this essential and basic element for our day-to-day needs. One is the failure of those in a position to take strategic decisions to conceptualise the issue and work 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.
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. 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 the costs.
We have been told in the past that foreign experts will come and advise how to run our water system so that it does not break down recurrently. What is the use of such expertise when it is quite clear that the expertise is available locally – if only that expertise, available from our Mauritian engineers and other water management specialists, is listened to and put to good use, and when the fundamental problem has been one of insufficient allocation of resources to restore greater efficiency in the sector? At one time, we were being told that we should outsource our water management to foreign companies. This is nonsense.
We have reached a stage when we will have to cease looking for scapegoats. Instead, we should address head-on the real shortcomings arising from insufficient decision-making and failure to adequately finance a sector on which – and this bears reiterating — our whole livelihood depends.
* Published in print edition on 4 December 2020