Met, Rains and Drains!…


By Jan Arden

Several months of increasing drought with little or no rains through the driest period of the year, as could be expected, had brought a heavy, if somewhat uncharitable, torch to bear on the combined competencies, foresight and planning limitations at the Central Water Authority, the Water Resources Monitoring Unit and the parent ministry, not to mention the unflattering image of our Meteorological Services and the budgetary restrictions imposed by the Ministry of Finance.

And yet early in 2015 then Minister Ashit Gungah, as government spokesperson, soon followed by others, was on air to roll out the key government actions that would satisfy the proclaimed electoral promise of 24-hour water supply every day of the week: “repair leak in our main Mare aux Vacoas reservoir (!), build a new dam at Riviere des Anguilles and replace all the inadequate piping of the CWA network”. The dam has remained firmly in limbo, and Prakash Maunthrooa, government’s recent special envoy in 2022 as GM of the CWA, recently alleged that his predecessor(s) had not undertaken any meaningful pipe replacement.

This government, with its previous variant having been in office since December 2014, many questions formulated from all quarters regarding these agencies and their higher authorities beg for clear answers. Environmental studies pupils know the statistical rainfall pattern over Mauritius, with a reliance on heavy summer rains from January to March, while the driest months of the year are from September to Nov-December. This condemns us every year to start being cautious with water usage and waste as from August with a planned increase in severity of restrictions up till end of December at least so as to avoid our reservoirs running dry.

With a more affluent lifestyle, the development of gated communities, numerous IRS schemes luxury villas and more hotels around our beachfronts, rise in demand for water consumption could have been forecasted by the Water Resources Unit. Local specialised engineers would have forecast the need for extra catching power and, where feasible, small river dams to avoid that more than 80% of our surface waters do not rush freely and through rivers to the sea. No dam has been built since the river dams of Midlands (2002) and Bagatelle (began in 2012 and completed in 2017).

Desalination plants, working either by evaporation and collection of safe drinkable water or by forcing salt water through a set of membranes removing the salt as a sludge, require lots of energy and careful disposal of the thick heavy sludge of salt as pumping it back into the sea would have potentially disastrous effects on marine organisms. Progress has been made on both fronts and containerized plants are commercially available but work is ongoing for units that are reliably solar-powered. They are still several times more expensive than rain water capture, volumes of output seem limited and engineers would know that the containerized units remain worthwhile for specific places like hotels, IRS schemes and where no other alternative is available, say Rodrigues Island, where it can complement rain water collection.

Therefore, there was some urgency for the CWA and the parent Ministry to have pushed harder for the establishment of the Riviere des Anguilles dam (towards which a nominal sum of Rs 100m had been budgeted in June 2021) and entrench a much more acceptable rate of old pipe replacement. Neither having been done, those responsible for the state of affairs and the possible political interference to make sure the tramway had every priority may have played havoc with our water availability and the severe drought the population had to endure over many months.

Eventually, we did get the long-awaited summer storm rains, courtesy of cyclone Cheneso which battered Madagascar (more than 20 deaths, 100,000 displaced or refugees, we trust government will have offered some assistance, financial or otherwise) as it slowly crossed the island continent from North East towards the general South West and its tail spirals brought us some heavy downpours spread over some ten days. Our reservoirs, all of which had reached depletion levels, slowly regained some considerable composure even as 80% of the surface waters and river flows rushed unattended to the lagoons.

The battering rains were however to raise our worst fears as many sites around both the towns and the agglomerations in the countryside, including newly completed NHDC and NSLDC apartments barely handed over to their occupants, were inexorably drowned under several feet of water. Personal belongings lost, public transport halted, schooling for all levels disrupted, veggies on the rise and livelihoods on hold, the depressing impression of déjà-vu. It could not be simply a matter of inadequate resources from Finance since the Minister had indeed earmarked the staggering sum of Rs 16 billion for drains in his June 21 budget — a mammoth departure from preceding budgets as evidenced by the table below:

All-round scepticism was understandable as nobody believed our administrative processes to acquire lands and launch drain tenders would ever absorb such an astronomical amount in a one-year budget span. There was equal scepticism of the relation between economic growth and digging of drains, as propounded by Minister Padayachy in an interview to Radio Plus after his June 2021 Budget. But with such vast amounts budgeted and the cool assurance of the Finance Minister, there was no reason why, as Minister Hurreeram and other ministers predicted confidently, “Within one year, floods will be a thing of the past!”

Nothing much was heard of this budgetary manna until we learned that another private company, Drains Infrastructure Construction Ltd (DICL), was created in Nov 2021 and Avinash Gopee was appointed to manage a Rs 11 billion budget without having to report to anybody, still less to Parliament, perhaps not even to the Director of Audit. From Mr Gopee’s answer to journos on the flood miseries around the island in the Monday issue of Le Defi, we read that since inception of the DICL 20 months ago, it has identified some 55 drain projects and tenders are now being launched for 19 of them. 

If government has a narrative to tell about the state of the Met services, the confusion of school closure bulletins, the lack of progress on water retention investments or the desultory annual storyline of drains and floods succeeding months of drought, it had better articulate it.

* * *

Court intrigues…

More intrigue unfolded elsewhere and went somewhat less noticed. Anoop Nilamber, who had been officiating as CEO of Airports of Mauritius, was appointed in June 2021 as CEO of the State Bank. Although he had qualified in Finance and Banking from Pantheon-Assas, he had little track record in local bank management and this inevitably raised some eyebrows in the banking community. Six months later his departure as SBM’s CEO was announced and it appears a new post created for him at SBM Holdings with the same salary and conditions. Whether this was a necessary internal restructuring, a surprising desire of the short-lived CEO or a gentle “kick upstairs”, we may never know.

Equally intriguingly was the follow-up to the ruckus and furore raised after the son of the Police Commissioner, whose name had been associated with alleged financial scams, had been granted a mercy by the President of the Republic in one case where he was still appealing his condemnation to the Privy Council. The one-year prison sentence had barely been graciously converted to a Rs 100,000 fine during this appeal process, that the ICAC, whose public perception has no longer to be commented upon, entered the previous case(s) of alleged financial embezzlement of some Rs 25m against the same individual at the Financial Crime Division of the Intermediate Court.

Again we may never know the motives behind the grace, nor those behind the revived case that has been set for hearing later in February.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 3 February 2023

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