Although a Cabinet sub-committee has recommended the incremental dissolution of the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) and replace it with a Water Management Company with a revised water sector model over a three-year transitionary period, Public Utilities Minister Marvin Gonzales said Cabinet held a different view in which the transformation should take place.
“Cabinet is of the view with an empowered management team and a management that is held accountable to the people of T&T and to be given the mandate to manage in the way that any modern organisation ought to be managed there is absolutely no need to wind down the operations of WASA at this point in time,” he said at a news conference yesterday.
Such transformation, Gonzales said will require funding, adding they have offers “from the IDB, from CAF, from the private sector and international partners” on the table.
“Based on what is most feasible we will go back to Cabinet with a recommendation so as to identify a source of funding. Yes, it is going to take some money but it is going to be monies well spent.”
The committee stated there exists compelling evidence trade unions had become suppliers of good and services to the authority while management turned a blind eye, constituting a conflict of interest.
The report further stated the authority’s financial performance has been poor with chronic deficits being a regular feature, saying, “this is a breeding ground for corruption and there is concern that there is a culture of corruption in the procurement of services by the authority.”
Also at the news conference were WASA’s chairman Dr Lennox Sealy and its acting CEO Alan Poon King.
Gonzales said the Cabinet decided to immediately appoint Sealy as WASA’s executive director and CEO to assume full control of water company.
Sealy will replace acting CEO Alan Poon King who will resume duties as director of customer services.
A deputy executive director will also be appointed to assist Sealy.
Cabinet has put together a sub-committee chaired by minister Pennelope Beckles and include ministers Camille Robinson-Regis, Brian Manning, Shamfa Cudjoe, Simon de Nobrega, Franklin Khan, Donna Cox and Gonzales to oversee the transformation of WASA.
The report, Gonzales said, will be laid in the House of Representatives next Friday following a ministerial statement.
Gonzales said, “Efficiency was sacrificed for inter alia political patronage and management accountability exchange for industrial stability resulting in an organisation in which there is little correlation between the contents of collective agreements and the realities of providing a reliable service to the national population at an affordable and acceptable cost to the taxpayers.”
Gonzales did not deny corruption is evident in WASA.
“Yes, corruption and the allegation of corruption and the perception of corruption around WASA is an issue.”
Questioned if any decision had been taken to cut WASA’s 5,000 staff, Gonzales said no.
“At this point in time, the Government has not taken a decision to engage in any voluntary separation or cutting of staff. This is something the new management of WASA will have to conduct a comprehensive audit of the staff composition of the authority.”
However, he said information received by independent organisations and previous governments suggested WASA was overstaffed.
In 2013, he said 1,200 of WASA’s 5,000 workers participated in a VSEP programme which cost taxpayers $360 million.
By 2015, Gonzales said the staff composition returned to 5,000.
Between 2010 and 2020, Gonzales said over $23 billion was injected into WASA.
“And you look into what are some of the things this money was spent, in my view, the vast majority of that money was spent not in trying to improve the water supply to the people of this country.”
This money paid contractors, bills, overtime payments and hefty salaries.
Gonzales said the sub-committee and WASA’s management will have to address mounting debt.
While WASA owed contractors $650 million, Gonzales said, “Of course, in a new WASA a lot of these works can be done in house as opposed to going out to private contractors.”
In the coming days, Gonzales said WASA’s board will meet the three unions representing WASA workers.
Gonzales said the most critical intervention required at WASA was proper management.
Managers must be held to account.
"An organisation cannot be corrupt if managers and management are not doing what they are supposed to do to foster that culture of openness and transparency in the organisation. We believe the first order of business in the transformation is getting management right."
Insisting that T&T was not water-scarce, Gonzales said WASA is faced with a desalination bill of almost US$7 million per month.
He held the view that we would not buy desalination water, stating if WASA drill wells throughout the country we could obtain between 30 to 40 million gallons of water in its grid.
When people do not get water, Gonzales said they pay a political price.
"I can tell you it is an embarrassment to me...a national embarrassment that you have to rely heavily on water trucks to put in people's tanks."
Noting that only 34 per cent of the population receives water around the clock, Gonzales said this was unsatisfactory, promising to provide at least 80 to 90 per cent of the country with an efficient pipe-borne supply in the not too distant future.
In going forward, Gonzales said will present to Cabinet "a programme of critical works" for approval.
Gonzales said repairs would have to be undertaken on water plants, machinery and pumps that continuously break down which causes disruptions in the water supply.