Public Utilities Minister Marvin Gonzales

A Cabinet sub-committee recently formed to address the Water and Sewerage Authority’s (WASA) lingering water woes, has been given three months by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley to come up with a comprehensive plan to improve the country’s water supply to citizens.

Among the areas the committee will examine in its first meeting scheduled this week will be WASA’s operations, mounting debt, ageing pipelines, governance structure and poor water distribution.

This comes four months after Robert Le Hunte resigned as public utilities minister because Cabinet had failed to approve his proposal of a $1.5 billion metering system for WASA’s customers.

Chairing the committee is Public Utilities Minister Marvin Gonzales, who will work alongside members— Housing Minister Pennelope Beckles, Energy Minister Franklin Khan and Social Development and Family Services Minister Donna Cox.

The committee has to submit recommendations and a framework for the restructuring of the water company to Rowley by November 30.

The Government, Gonzales told Guardian Media in a telephone interview yesterday, “must be prepared to make hard decisions” to turn around WASA.

The PM, in an exclusive interview with Guardian Media which was published in yesterday’s paper, when told the Regulated Industries Commission had reported that 46.5 per cent of the population do not get a 24/7 supply of pipe-borne water and that the Caribbean Development Bank had estimated WASA is overstaffed by approximately 4,000 people and subsidised by $1.8 billion annually, said he was not satisfied with the availability of water to the population and we “cannot rely on the considerable subsidy that is becoming less available.”

Rowley said he was awaiting a comprehensive review of the water company, after which the Government will act “to restructure WASA while aiming to minimise the loss of jobs, maximise productivity, reduce the subsidy” and provide an adequate water supply to the nation.

Having recently met with WASA’s chairman Romney Thomas, its acting CEO Sherland Sheppard and the ministry’s technocrats, Gonzales said he was presented with reports on WASA’s current operations.

Gonzales admitted the annual $1.8 billion subsidy WASA receives “is not spent” to improve its failing infrastructure.

“So, what is going to happen …WASA’s infrastructure will continue to fail. There will be more leaks in the roads and we are going to end up in a situation where water, will in fact, become a serious crisis to the country.”

Gonzales said installing new pipelines across the country will have to be done incrementally and assistance of international agencies will be required.

“The aim is to reduce WASA’s reliance on subsidies and get the highest productivity from its workers,” Gonzales said.

He said WASA must ensure its dams and underground wells are rehabilitated to get water to deprived communities.

The committee, he said, will meet WASA’s board, its trade union and public.

Asked if WASA has too many workers and would have to restructure, Gonzales said when the committee begins working “one of the areas we will be looking at is not whether WASA has too many staff. I am not saying that this is an issue that may not come up. It may come up, but what we have to look at is ensuring that WASA has the necessary competent staff on board to become a self-sufficient and productive state agency.”

Gonzales said the committee will have to look at the act governing WASA, which is an old piece of legislation.

“It would require a comprehensive assessment of WASA’s operations which would include its governance and legislative structure,” Gonzales said.

He said the biggest bugbear for WASA was its mounting debts.

“WASA is owing millions of dollars in debts. A number of WASA’s contractors are suing them for monies owed. WASA has been plagued with this problem over the last 20 years.”

He said millions are also owed to WASA by customers.

“We have to look at that. We have to look at customers’ willingness to pay for the water that they are using,” he said.

Saying citizens waste too much water, Gonzales said WASA’s last rate review was in 1994. With T&T having the lowest water rate in the world, he said one area WASA “may look at” was increasing its water rates.

“Yes, we have to look at all of that. But the key is the 46 per cent of the communities getting a reliable water supply be increased to 80 to 90 per cent. That is our key mandate. And in so doing, we have to make some structural changes towards achieving that objective.”

Since assuming office two weeks ago, Gonzales said it pains his heart whenever people call, text or WhatsApp him to complain about leaking mains pipelines. WASA, he said, has to become more proactive, adding he was unhappy with its customer service and communication strategy which has to improve.