Noble: The WASA freeco—is it really the poor who suffer from disconnections?

Thirty years ago, Frico was a famous milk brand which offered free children’s toys in each tin. A ‘freeco’ was different: an event in which some could enjoy benefits for no money, yet others would have to pay for it. It is like the ‘comps’ for the young today. 

Given the WASA shenanigans in the last weeks, we wish to keep the national ‘freeco’ alive and well. We refuse to accept that we have squandered time and money dealing with the thorny problem of waste and inefficiency in WASA. 

Photo: Wasa headquarters in St Joseph.

In 2016, the IMF 2016 told us: ‘[…] taking into account the size of energy revenue windfalls; the country has under-saved and under-invested in their future [which] could lead the country to uncomfortable levels of debt’. We, like the Prodigal Son, had wasted our wealth. A prime example was the non-functional billion-dollar Beetham Waste Water plant, for which we took the largest ever IADB loan (US$546 Million). 

By April 2020, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley was warning: ‘Throwing borrowed billions of dollars into unproductive subsidies… is an unsustainable approach which will further wreck the economy and damage any chance we have of balancing the national budget in the foreseeable future. This will destroy the progress we have made in expenditure restraint, domestic production and income generation over the last four years’. 

Within a month, Minister of Public Utilities Robert Le Hunte resigned over a ‘policy difference’. The still-lingering question: are the WASA subsidies exempt?

A bare year after, with a new chair/CEO in place, there was an attempt to disconnect delinquent customers. Bravely, WASA’s new line minister initially pushed back on the protests by UNC and others. But he soon capitulated. 

Photo: Minister of Public Utilities Marvin Gonzales (centre) on the field.
(via Ministry of Public Utilities)

For a second time, it was the ‘wrong timing’ to act on WASA’s inefficiencies. 

Water supply is critical in the present pandemic times. No argument. But is the concern really about the poor? Who are the ones unable to cope with paying their WASA bills? 

The population that is easy to serve and those who are powerful politically are the ones who get water first. Only a third of the country have water daily. The poor suffer from a perennial lack of water. The lesson of the two-month WASA amnesty of 2018 – 19, which collected $1.1 million and discovered 800 unregistered users, including those with swimming pools, is forgotten. 

Mr Le Hunte, in September 2019, confirmed the assessment of the past WASA chairman, Mr Indar Maharaj, that water theft was a more significant problem than our leakages. 

Mr Le Hunte sought to implement district water meters, which were to be used to assess how much water was used versus the collected revenue for different districts. Who uses, should pay. Unfortunately, to date, only a quarter of those planned meters are installed, with no actionable data.

Photo: Hundreds of unregistered users benefit from WASA’s services, including persons with swimming pools.

Which communities may be using more water than they pay for? A good wager is that it is not the low-income households nor the squatters. The more pipes in a house, the more water you use. Who has unregistered swimming pools? 

The subsidised citizens consume 90 gallons per day compared to international standards of 44. While these ‘Fortunates’ pay $3 per day for their water, WASA pays Desalcott a reported $10 per cubic foot of water. Almost half of Desalcott’s output is now for domestic use, costing us $0. 9 million daily.

It appears more acceptable to pay the private phone companies instead of paying for water. Despite the pandemic, we have continued spending a monthly average of $234 on our mobile phone service and four times that amount on our broadband use.

It is not the poor who are being protected; it is the lucky, privileged ones who benefit disproportionately. A sloppy WASA impoverishes through the poor technical and operational performances and entrenches poor quality service. 

Photo: The Penal Poet gives his take on WASA’s road works.

The investment rate in our water supply depends on our country’s economic health and the government’s revenue stream, plus the political will. That lack of willpower was evidenced in the $396 mil payment of VSEP, which resulted in no headcount change in the 2012 – 15 period. 

Do the poor get WASA bonuses or juicy contracts, or handsome overtime pay? This episode showed us the lack of will by the government and opposition this month, despite challenging revenue projections.

Explainer sang in 1979: ‘I know this country have problems, and there’s nobody to solve them…We can’t get lights, neither water/ look at the situation with WASA.’

How much longer will they ‘kicks’ in Parliament? How can we be saved from our masqueraders?

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One comment

  1. “The more pipes in a house, the more water you use.”
    How can you be so sure that that is accurate?
    Imagine a person who lives in a two bedroom HDC apartment, their father dies and they inherit a 2 storey house. A 2 storey house has more pipes than a 2 bedroom apartment. Does the person in the house shower longer, drink more water, wash more often etc.?
    Of course a house may have plants that encourage watering them but let’s say this house has no plants. Where does the additional water use come from?

    In the issue of swimming pools, it’s primarily evaporation and leakage and the water that exits on the clothes of people running and jumping into it that use up water. You don’t have to be rich to have a pool in TT, 5 uncles who know construction and a shovel can make it happen for you. It’s easy to hate on pools because of the amount of fresh water in them but pools also provide enjoyment for children etc.
    By the way that US500+million loan wasn’t a waste for everybody, somebody got something big from that, they and their families living good, it was worth it for them and they got away with it and will continue to do so, because TT like it so or don’t care enough to do something about it.

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