Noble: Water woes: from Wrightson to Marvin

EPL Infrafred Sauna

“Our mission of ‘water for all’ is the assertion of a basic human right as enshrined in the constitution of Trinidad and Tobago, namely – the right of the individual to life… Providing water for all our people provides for equality and equal opportunity…” Ganga Singh, July 2000.

Our first Red House was set on fire because of a bitter quarrel over water. The event is commonly known as the Water Riots. This event was so important that it warranted six pages in Dr Eric Williams’ History of Trinidad and Tobago.

Photo: Leaky tap.
(Copyright Shridhar Vashistha / Unsplash)

Walsh Wrightson was the villain of the piece. As the director of Public Works, he started building the eponymous road from the western end of London Street to the edge of the Woodbrook estate.

Wrightson did this to connect a pumping station to pump sewage into the sea. The problems he faced still plague us today and now fall into the hands of Marvin Gonzales.

The brave or unfortunate (take your pick) Marvin has significantly larger problems than what confronted Wrightson, an arrogant man but a fine engineer. The fall of governments can often be linked to the handling of water problems.

At that time, the rich Trinidadians used to let their pipes remain open, even when not in use. Calculating water rates by the supply pipe size favoured the wealthy householder with the large 2,000-gallon baths at the expense of the rest of the community.

Yet, popular opinion maintained that the water supply problem was that there was not enough water.

Have a drink…

In 1895, Wrightson proposed a comprehensive scheme to provide the extra water needed and simultaneously reduce waste by introducing water meters. Within seven years, there was no need to cut off the city’s water, and the water pressure had almost doubled.

Zealous Wrightson then began to cut off pipes that were wasting water! The citizens refused to believe that there was a better water supply and feared that rates would increase.

Agitated, they blamed Wrightson for the state of affairs. The Riot ensued.

We’re not taking that!

The Commission, set up to understand the causes of the Riot, noted that “an ignorant and incensed people who had been fed with falsehoods [about the Waterworks Bill] for a month” and had been further incited by the publication on the morning of the Riot of the deliberate falsehood that the acting Chief Justice considered the ticket (to witness the Legislative Council’s water debate) order to be illegal—for which they blamed the editor of the Mirror, Richard Mole.

The Government had neither explained itself nor countered the misinformation in pursuing their proposed changes. The Commission characterised this silence as “calculated to give colour to the view that the Government cared nought for public opinion”. (Lawrence, 1969.)

Let them eat cake…

This tale teaches that water can be a politicised trigger to divide a country and that those who benefit may also influence the media. Disinformation is not new in our land.

Clyde Weatherhead detailed the political minefield the Water and Sewerage Authority Boards go through.

He was a board member in 1995 – 97. He detailed the solutions that the incumbent trade unions and management devised.

Minister of Public Utilities Marvin Gonzales (centre) inspects WASA’s infrastructure.
(via Ministry of Public Utilities)

Severn Trent, whose contract was issued days before the 1995 General Election, collected $50 mil for virtually no work. Patrick Manning called an early election to head off the quarrels about this contract and lost.

It should be noted that while the WASA management and technical staff were of high quality, they were hamstrung by a lack of funds. At the time of entry by Severn Trent, the shortfall between revenue and expenditure was 40%!

Successive governments viewed the utility as a social service rather than a commercial enterprise. When the governments could not subsidise WASA, they were forced to seek short-term loans and postpone crucial maintenance work.

Keep off…

When Severn Trent’s people left our shores, the changes made in WASA’s top management structure to accommodate them remained, and the astronomical salaries were entrenched.

Under the Basdeo Panday-led administration, Ganga Singh brought us the Desalination plant, shrouded with allegations of illegal dealings with Mr Hafeez Karamath.

(Israel appeared to be the go-to source of men involved in suspicious deals. Under the Manning administration, there was another company from Israel.)

Former Minister of Works Ganga Singh.

The justification was that the Point Lisas Industrial Estate would get water from this plant, and WASA would serve the residential and commercial users. The rubric was “Water for All”.

Promises that every household in the country would have received a pipe-borne water supply by the end of 2000 were made, and pipes were bought, but there was no water for all.

There was an unprecedented wave of pipe-laying activity throughout the country and, consequently, a record target of road rehabilitation work before year’s end. All in time for the elections! Still no water for all!

Photo: A WASA employee at work.
(via WASA)

By 2011, Minister Emmanuel George, formerly the permanent secretary under Mr Singh, spoke of the importance of dualling the Caroni South Trunk Main—to avoid blowouts that negatively impacted south Trinidad and to support the times when the Desalination plant needed maintenance.

He promised to increase the Caroni Arena plant’s capacity from 75 to 100 million gallons daily. Meanwhile, the charges from the Desalination plant increased relentlessly. (Hansard, February 2012).

This sitting to pass the Water Improvement Rate (Variation) Order 2011 – Point Lisas Industrial Estate reveals how petty some of our legislators can be when discussing the vital water issue.

Cunupia FC coach Randolph Boyce (right) offers a drink of water to defender Joshua Phillip during NLCL U-19 action against Moruga FC at the Ato Boldon Stadium on 15 May 2022.
(Copyright Daniel Prentice/ Wired868)

The infamous Beetham Wastewater project was couched in the assurance that we were achieving the “Water for All” goal.

As Afra Raymond helpfully points out, this project was not included nor mentioned in the 2014 Budget statement, nor did it follow the established rules. There was a seven-day gap between this project’s Request For Proposal issuance and the national Budget.

If we were near the “Water for All” goal, Raymond asked, what was the justification for the project. ( Nearly a billion dollars was wasted.

Then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (right) and Minister of Works and Infrastructure Jack Warner at the Trinidad and Tobago 2010 Women’s Under-17 World Cup.

Raymond also questioned the involvement of the National Gas Company. His summation of this project is that it represented “the complete failure of our country’s system of Public Financial Management”.

A $6.5 mil payment was made to a politically connected figure close to the 2014 election date, while $81 mil in pipes were wasted.

The WASA fish rotted from the head! An Acting CEO could defy his Board’s instructions. Laying a 2-kilometre pipe can take 18 months under management supervision!

Resident Roland Gilbert talks to Maria Nunes in December 2021 about the deplorable state of Africa Road, John John, due to a WASA overflow.

Talk about pressure? Can this monster be tamed?

Here are some challenges facing Mr Marvin Gonzales. Illegal quarrying and the presence of the Gunapo landfill threaten the quality and quantum of water going to the Caroni-Arena dam.

Ageing infrastructure has been and will be a nightmare and source of deep concern relative to the consistency of water supply.

Photo: Minister of Public Utilities Marvin Gonzales.

No new dams! We seem to have made a policy decision to depend on desalination. Meanwhile, WASA pays the Desalination Company, which now services domestic customers, an ever-increasing rate on its 20-year contract. Trinidad is a paradise!

Without meters to limit waste, we use 90 gallons per day compared to the international standard of 44—yet pay a quarter of the regional water rate.

Will Marvin have sustained courage and smarts, or will he become, like Wrightson, a pariah?

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  1. Are there not Le Hunte and Lennox Sealy stories to be told—if only as warnings for the courageous (or foolhardy!) MG? And was there no progress made in the years prior to the Partnership capture of power in 2010, which set WASA (not exclusively) back decades?

    • When Le Hunte got shunted out, I wrote about the lessons there. Among the questions asked were:
      “Apparently, we do not know the difference between cost and investment: an investment has future returns and pays back the capital used. Is the Cabinet bereft of that understanding, given this brouhaha? Giving money for social support is easy, transforming the economy is tough. Without transformation, we are toast.”

      Earl, our old school friend Sealy got a ‘corbeaux sweat’. Why? I cannot discern from published reports and so I will not attempt to essay a guess or lessons. My training teaches me to deal with facts and to walk with receipts.

      The point is regardless of party in power we do not want to do the hard work. We do not believe in data as a guide to drive decisions. Hence, we are forever suckers in a 3 card game.

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