It will cost the cash-strapped Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) $12.7 billion to fix some of the major issues affecting its water supply and distribution. It’s money Public Utilities Minister Robert Le Hunte says the water company does not have nor will acquire anytime soon.
Last week, Le Hunte gave a breakdown of how much WASA will have to fork out if it were to improve its overall delivery of service to the public, which has been his biggest headache since assuming office.
To replace 7,200 kilometres of ageing pipelines, Le Hunte said it will cost WASA a staggering $10 billion.
WASA will also have to come up with another $1.2 billion to install water meters at homes, businesses and in industrial areas, while they would have to find $1 billion to fix interconnectivity issues. Another $500 million is needed to improve its water storage capacity.
"That is the kind of money that we don't have," Le Hunte told the Sunday Guardian in a candid interview at his ministry's Woodbrook office, as he tried to level with citizens about the issues affecting WASA's water distribution and production in the harsh dry season.
He said between 2010 to 2015 hundreds of millions of dollars were spent and wasted on WASA projects that never materialised, which has the company in its current position.
Le Hunte said for years WASA wanted to implement a metering system but it never got off the ground. He noted that only three per cent of WASA's 400,000 residential customers now have metres, while roughly 80 per cent of its commercial customers are metered.
"We have adopted bad habits in using water. We waste water. I wasted water before. I was part of the bad habit. But I changed because I became water conscious. I now conserve water," Le Hunte said.
He said while some communities have been crying out for water, concerned citizens have been texting him to complain that other people are still using water for prolonged periods to wash down their driveways, water gardens and lawns, and wash vehicles.
A T&T citizen uses almost 90 gallons of water daily, Le Hunte said, noting the international standard is 44 gallons.
He said WASA's water tariff is also the lowest in the world, as the average household pays $3 a day for the essential commodity. Residential customers are charged $1.75 for 220 gallons of water which they abuse, Le Hunte said.
$630 million in arrears owed to WASA
Le Hunte noted that the Government gives WASA an annual subvention of $1.8 billion while its expenditure is $2.5 billion. But as of September 2017, he said WASA was owed over $700 million by its residential, industrial and commercial customers. Residential customers were in arrears of $518.7 million, commercial $78.1 million and industrial $32.5 million—a total of $630 million in arrears.
"I have asked WASA to get into some collection drives and make sure you collect your money. A lot of this money is years outstanding," Le Hunte said.
"The culture of T&T not paying their bills is not something new. The non-payment by some individuals is one of the problems we need to fix. You cannot go about fixing a problem by not deciding to look at all of the factors that are impacting the problem. Is it something that needs to be dealt with? Yes!"
Le Hunte admitted that WASA not recovering its arrears was an indictment on them.
From January 2018, Le Hunte said WASA owed $375.7 million to contractors and suppliers, while there were $198.9 million in unvalidated claims submitted by contractors and vendors.
"With regards to the Government services (offices), that represents about $200 million, about 30 per cent. When I looked at it, the biggest category, that was delinquent was residential. In the same token, I also hear a lot of cries from contractors saying that WASA owes them money. I am pained by those individuals."
Asked if WASA will ever become a profit-making enterprise, he said, "I don't know if that will ever happen. For WASA to become a profit-making enterprise, the price of water would have to be increased to a high level."
Should WASA be privatised?
With privatising, Le Hunte said the water company would be able to provide better service but customers would have to pay far more for water.
"Privatisation comes with a cost. Where I am, the Government is not looking at privatising WASA. What I have been doing is using the private sector approach in an attempt to improve WASA's inefficiencies."
Although he recently received blows for calling on customers to pay their bills or face disconnection, Le Hunte said he still stands by his statement.
Long road to 24/7 supply
Admitting that the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) has been plagued with a host of problems over the years which he inherited, Public Utilities Minister Robert Le Hunte says he will not fool either himself or the population by promising to provide water 24/7.
"I am not going to sit here and tell people that there is going to be 24/7 water for everyone. I am looking systematically in areas that are not getting water. I am not promising 24/7 water for all. I cannot do that," Le Hunte said.
"The population has been fooled by those statements in the past. And they have been fooled by a number of previous ministers...I am not part of the fooling game.
"I want every citizen to know that I am giving this my 100 per cent attention with regards to trying to alleviate all of the problems. I sympathise with people who don't have water. I hear their cries...I hear their pleas and I am trying my best to alleviate and minimise the impact of this particular drought situation that we are facing."
For weeks, some communities in Central and South have been complaining of lack of water in their taps, as they accused Government of unleashing political spite on Opposition strongholds, which Le Hunte denied.
Le Hunte said Petit Valley, Paramin, Maloney, and Arouca, which fall into PNM constituencies, have been suffering for water as well.
"I am against our leaders making these statements because all they try to do is take situations and turn it into politics. That is a false narrative. All it is doing is inciting people."
He also called on politicians to stop dividing the country and demonising each other.
"People are having problems because of the overall reduction in the water supply."
In a release on Tuesday, WASA advised the public that its water challenges are expected to continue through May and June. It also advised that its water restrictions implemented in January will remain in effect.
Le Hunte did not hide the fact that WASA has been faced with a tsunami of issues, ranging from lack of water storage, unavailability of funds, management problems, ageing infrastructure, outstanding arrears, debts and the inability to channel water to high demand areas, which he said the People's National Movement Government inherited when they assumed office in 2015.
"These are all of the issues before us. As the minister, I am accepting all of them...and I am trying to fix all of them. I am not discriminating," he said.
“I have to let people understand the context under which I got them. I cannot fix them like this in the morning without understanding what I have to deal with."
For years, Le Hunte added, WASA has been encountering internal management issues end they continue under his watch.
"I am not blinded or mindful of the management issues at WASA. We are working on those also. We have to put a better management structure in managing those issues.
"WASA is part of a bigger problem of accountability and management issues that we have in T&T and in our State enterprises. The way how we have structured those State enterprises has resulted in some of them being inefficient."
WASA normally produces and distributes 240 million gallons of water daily. However, due to the harsh dry season, its delivery has fallen to 210 million gallons daily.
WASA is currently drilling water wells across T&T to ramp up water production. They also recently installed six new water tanks at Hololo, Valencia, Four Roads, Tucker Valley, Guanapo, and Moruga which will provide 2.2 million imperial gallons of water to its current storage of 14,729 imperial gallons.
As a result of the severe drought, however, from January to the end of April, WASA has also repaired 10,764 pipe leaks, while an outstanding 1,500 leaks are yet to be repaired.
"WASA gets about 150 leaks a day," Le Hunte said, stating that new leaks appear as fast as old ones are patched.
"It's a recurring problem...but we have been managing to reduce the figures. We are improving. Are we there? No, we are far from there. So I am not making an excuse, I am just talking about the reality of what it is. If that reality makes people uncomfortable, well, who the cap fits, let them wear it."
Le Hunte admitted that he has heard complaints that WASA has not been sticking to the new water schedule which went into effect on May 1, but noted poor infrastructure has been triggering such occurrences. He pleaded with the public to conserve water, identify leaks and come forward with evidence of those who have been charging a fee for delivery of relief water supplies.
Le Hunte also promised that by the end of 2020 Tobago should become water self-sufficient, while he will work feverishly in Trinidad to incrementally increase water distribution to all affected areas.
"It will be done one step at a time."
By next dry season, Le Hunte promised citizens will see improvements in their overall water supply.
$10B—To replace 7,200 kilometres of ageing pipelines.
$1.2 B— to install water meters at homes, businesses and in industrial areas.
$1 B— to fix interconnectivity issues.
$500 M—to improve its water storage capacity.