Water rights: Time to address this issue in the national interest

and for stakeholders to assume their responsibilities.

By SR Balgopal

The current situation in relation to the shortage of water in Mauritius is dire to say the least. It may be argued that the Central Water Authority should shoulder a significant part of the blame as it is its  responsibility to ensure the distribution of water in Mauritius.

It has been said that some 40 percent of water, at least, gets lost in the distribution network of the Central Water Authority. The reasons for this are manifold but one cannot underestimate three main ones:

(a) lack of maintenance of the water distribution infrastructure;

(b) lack of investment in upgrading the water distribution infrastructure; and

(c) absence of succession planning at the Central Water Authority.

As far as point (c) above is concerned, we understand that there is no comprehensive plan in relation to the water distribution infrastructure in Mauritius. It appears that in many areas, the knowledge pertaining to the precise locations of water pipes is very scanty as persons who had that knowledge have already retired and their knowledge has not been documented so that it could be used to the benefit of the Central Water Authority.

As far as government is concerned, we learn that on 27 February 2009, the delicate issue of water rights was considered at Cabinet level. The matter has been reported on the Government of Mauritius portal as follows:

“12. Cabinet has taken note of the current status of water rights in Mauritius and that a Master Plan for the water sector, including the rationalisation of the existing water rights, would be prepared taking into consideration land use and environmental and economic aspects.”

Water Rights can be succinctly described in the following terms: Owners of land adjoining rivers have what is called water rights–they can draw water from the river for uses such as irrigation.

Since February 2009,when the issue of water rights was debated at Cabinet level, the silence in connection with this same matter has been deafening. Despite a clear indication from the Cabinet Office that a Master Plan for the water sector, including water rights, would be prepared, nothing has been forthcoming.

We have to highlight that under the aegis of the Ministry of Public Infrastructure, there is a Water Resources Unit which, despite its low-profile, is a key stakeholder in relation to the management of our water resources. The Water Resources Unit, which was  established in May 1993, is responsible for the assessment, development, management and conservation of water resources in the Republic of Mauritius and its objectives are set out hereunder:

(a) To study and formulate policy in relation to: the control and use of water resources for the provision of water for domestic, agricultural, industrial and commercial supply and for hydro-electric power and for irrigation, land drainage and land reclamation, flood control, the development of fisheries, the protection of wild life, afforestation and the control of soil erosion;

(b) To investigate water resources and to collect, correlate and interpret any data with regard to those resources.

(c) To prepare an inventory of water resources and to keep the inventory continuously up to date.

(d) To update, on a regular basis, the Master Plan on the use of water resources.

(e) To ensure that appropriate measures are taken for the prevention of pollution of water resources.

(f) To prepare and follow up plans for the conservation, utilisation, control and development of water resources.

(g) To prepare schemes for the development of river basins and trans-river basins.

(h) To co-ordinate and scrutinise the projects undertaken by any person relating to the conservation, utilisation and development of water resources and to assess the technical possibilities, benefits and socio-economic feasibility of the project.

(i) To conduct and co-ordinate research and investigation on the economic use of water.

(j) To promote, design and construct, in consultation with appropriate authorities, schemes and works for the purpose of conservation and development of water resources and for the purposes specified in paragraph (a); and to arrange for the operation and maintenance of such schemes and works by appropriate use of organisations.

(k) To inspect any work carried out in relation to water development or utilisation purposes.

(l) To ensure that water supply conforms with such standards as are laid by law.

(m) To grant rights for the use of water and to issue permits, licences and concessions and for this purpose,

(i) To establish procedures for the re-assessment, variation and re-allocation of existing water rights and for the grant of new water rights.

(ii) To establish procedures for the issues of permits, licences and concessions.

(n) To supervise the enforcement of any water legislation.

(o) To advise the Minister on any matter affecting water resources.”

A reading of the above objectives demonstrates that the responsibility of updating the Master Plan in relation to water resources is clearly the responsibility of the water Resources Unit, pursuant to paragraph (d) above. In relation to water rights, paragraph (m) clearly entrusts the Water Resources Unit with the responsibility of reviewing existing water rights. It is not disputed that this aspect of the water problem in Mauritius has not been satisfactorily addressed. Is it because of the powerful lobby which is represented by the sugar industry?

We are well aware that a number of private companies in the sugar industry are benefiting from substantial water resources, which are to be found on their lands. Should these resources not be assessed and proposals made for their re-allocation by the Water Resources Unit? Or is government being prevented from going all the way to tackle the water shortage in Mauritius by an absence of strategic information from the Water Resources Unit?

The issues raised here affect all of us and it is about time that those who are entrusted with responsibilities start shouldering them.

* Published in print edition on 24 June 2011

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