Priority: Water or Electoral Reform?

Electoral reform can wait. Thirst, hunger and sanitation cannot

By TP Saran

Everything is important in a country, but everybody will agree that what is of utmost consideration is ensuring the conditions for the very survival of its people. And the first requirement for this, as even children who do environmental studies in primary school will tell us, is water. Water, food, shelter and fire: in that order, are what we need to maintain life. Without them, we are dead. The rest, comforts that are added, can come later, or may not even come, because we must be alive first then we can add further to the quality of our living, for which we then have to think, work, innovate.

But first: water!

Given the almost catastrophic water situation that we are facing, as citizens we expect that our leaders should put their heads together and concentrate on this issue as a matter of the greatest urgency. All else should become of secondary importance compared to the criticality of this unprecedented drought situation. Giovanna brought only hope – not a large quantity of rain as we had expected and prayed for. We are reaching the tail end of the heavy rains season, and there is no saying if any more cyclones will come our way. And even if they do, there is no guarantee of how much water they will bring, as in the case of Giovanna.

People are therefore perplexed by the amount of hype that is being devoted to electoral reform, especially the BLS. The Leader of the Opposition is driving this agenda after the Alliance’s split with the MSM, MMM-induced, with the clear objective of tweaking the First Past The Post system in his favour. He is least concerned about the political instability that this may lead to, as the adjustment for votes obtained by parties that have lost in an election may result in such a narrowing of the gap between the winning party and the losers that the latter then get the upper hand. This was demonstrated last week in this paper’s editorial based on the results of the elections in Rodrigues.

The point is that the Prime Minister, who is also leader of the Labour Party, has allowed his attention to be so polarized by Mr Berenger’s agenda – if we go by his various public statements – that he runs the risk of missing the wood for the trees. People are genuinely worried about how much more they will suffer from cuts in their water supply in an island which has always been blessed with an abundance of the precious liquid, and which now seems to have run out of luck. And as the supreme executive leader of the country, he must listen to the people at this crucial time so as to address their acute need with greater earnestness than is apparent.

Mr Berenger is not at the helm of affairs, and he can therefore afford to play about, deflect attention from major issues except those that can give him political mileage now or in future. That is his right, irresponsible as this may be, but the country’s incumbent leader must not fall into the trap of focusing too much on Mr Berenger’s personal concern.

Bits and pieces of information have been forthcoming from various sources about the tributaries of Mare-aux-Vacoas having been diverted for their own purpose by private promoters around the lake. It is simply unconceivable that information about the feeders of the largest freshwater reservoir in the island has never been compiled before, and that there is so much of confusion about confirming that state of affairs now. And yet doing this should not be – in fact is not – rocket science. In huge countries such as Brazil, continuous satellite surveillance provides data in real time to government agencies which then initiate action as required – which include severe sanctions for defaulters.

Surely in tiny Mauritius an aerial survey by helicopter can quickly provide the information about the feeders surrounding Mare-aux-Vacoas? Do we have to have officers physically going about on private property to carry out this exercise? Clearly not: it would be laborious and time-consuming, and they would not get the cooperation of the owners.

For that we need decisions to be taken at the highest, national level, which only an elected government can take, especially on a matter as vital as water security because water is a public good. What we don’t need is highly advertised site visits in motorcades to impose on planters in the region and that achieve nothing.

We feel therefore, that the Prime Minister himself should, at this stage and given the gravity of the situation, not only monitor the situation at his level, but as well take the immediate policy and accompanying measures that are needed. This can more effectively be done through an Interministerial Committee/Task Force which he can kickstart, but that should meet at least once week until we have reached a safe level of water provision across the country and are effectively out of the crisis. After that the meetings may be more spaced out – but the monitoring structure should be maintained for a longer period.

Electoral reform can wait. Thirst, hunger and sanitation cannot.

* Published in print edition on 17 February 2012

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