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Public Utilities Minister Marvin Gonzales speaks about the sub-committee’s report into the operations of the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) during yesterday’s press conference.

A specially-commissioned report into the operations of the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) has found the cash-strapped entity plagued by financial mismanagement, a lack of managerial accountability, corruption, parallel operations by representative trade unions and a general refusal by employees to work.

The findings, which were contained in a 135-page report, was dissected by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley on Monday during a special sitting of the Cabinet.

Last September, Rowley appointed a Cabinet Sub-Committee chaired by Public Utilities Minister Marvin Gonzales, to look into WASA’s operations and come up with a comprehensive plan to turn around the state-run organisation.

Included in the committee were ministers Donna Cox, Pennelope Beckles, Stuart Young, Camille Robinson-Regis and Franklin Khan.

On December 11, 2020, Rowley received a copy of the report which Guardian Media was able to obtain.

In it, the committee examined issues such as management levels, income and expenditure, employees allowances, overtime expenditure, desalinated water purchases, water production, financial analysis, and debt profile.

Under the headline “Current Model,” the report stated that WASA has become an unwieldy, overstaffed, unproductive, and unresponsive organisation that has deteriorated and is no longer efficiently serving citizens.

It stated, “There is a general lack of accountability pervading the organisation and the existing organisational culture is the very antithesis of a highly productive organisation.”

Over decades, the report stated, efficiency was sacrificed for political patronage, and management accountability exchanged 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.

WASA operating blindly

It also stated the authority has been operating blindly and noted an absence of credible information in key areas such as WASA’s customer database, liabilities, staffing levels, payables location of transmission and distribution main.

The committee concluded, “The dysfunctional inherent in WASA are so deeply entrenched that, in its current form, the organisation is incapable of effectively satisfying its customers’ demands and the State’s mandate. Continuation of the current WASA model will therefore generate further decline and exacerbate the downward spiral in all aspects of the authority’s operation.”

The report added maintaining the status quo leaves the state in the “unsustainable and unacceptable position of continuing to fund, to the tune of almost $2 billion annually, an organisation that lacks the ability to transform itself.”

It said it will be an exercise in “gross futility to ignore all the exigencies associated with attempting to operate/create an industrial entity by bringing together seven government-operated water production facilities into one legal and organisational framework. This model has long outlived its usefulness and to continue conducting proverbial surgery on WASA in the hope that it would become efficient would be an exercise in futility.”

It stated WASA’s intractable issues have manifested itself in the form of operational and service failures where hundreds of thousands of citizens are unable to get either a reasonable supply of water or a suitable and timely response to their plight.

“WASA’s executives are not held to account, deploy very limited controls, are not effectively regulated, apply very antiquated, technology-deficient system and are generally devoid of an understanding of WASA’s role, relationship and the consequences of the utility’s actions on the national population.”

Big losses through leaks

Another issue, the committee raised was water lost through leaks and theft which is estimated within the range of 40 to 50 per cent.

This problem, the report stated has led to public mistrust in WASA, an unwillingness of some customers to pay even one of the world’s cheapest water rates and WASA being unable to survive without significant Government funding.

With this in mind, the sub-committee recommended, “that the only practical solution lies in the incremental dissolution of WASA in its present configuration and its replacement with the creation of a Water Management Company within a revised water sector model.”

The new model for T&T speaks of a water sector that is technology-driven, customer-focused and commercially viable with an operationally efficient Water Management Company in the lead.

“Further, as this new orientation emerges over a period of three years, the existing structure, WASA has to be rationalised and wound down, transferring the assets of the old order into the emerging (structure) company.”

The sub-committee has identified a number of enabling transition/transformation factors that must be urgently addressed. These include:

• the establishment of a new water company

• acquisition of water management capabilities

• winding up and concessionary negotiations with the three registered majority trade unions

• aligned parallel operations

• technology enhancement.

In this regard, the sub-committee envisages the creation of a transition team/contracted entity to conduct/facilitate this aspect of the transition, adding that funding will need to be available to ensure this.

Reset required

The report explained that it was a time for a “reset” in this critical sector.

The event of the COVID-19 pandemic, the report stated, had made it impossible for government to continue injecting money into WASA without proportionate returns.

After many years of costly interventions, the report stated “the evidence points to an overwhelming lack of focus on comprehensive, sustainable, sequenced interventions, resulting in Government’s investment being directed to ad-hoc projects that have not cumulatively improved the supply of water to the country.”

Despite receiving some $21.6 billion in Government subventions from 2010 to 2020, WASA has not been able to fulfil its mandate “with an estimated 34 per cent of the population currently getting a 24/7 supply of water.”

Despite these annual subventions, WASA does not possess the in-house equipment to effectively undertake one of its core functions which is pipeline installation and repairs and is heavily reliant on contractors to whom they are heavily indebted.

“The extent of this unquantified debt is the subject of a seemingly interminable verification exercise, resulting in a high level of unrecorded account payables. The authority’s overall financial performance has been poor with chronic deficits being a regular feature. This is breeding ground for corruption and there is concern that there is a culture of corruption in the procurement of services by the authority.”

It also stated that the exceedingly top-heavy management of WASA is “ineffective and contents of freely negotiated collective agreements reveal a philosophy of securing industrial peace by ceding control of the authority to the unions, to the point where the unions have now effectively subsumed many management responsibilities. In some cases, the agreements constrain the authority from reengineering and introducing new and contemporary water management technologies into its operations without first securing the union’s approval. There exists compelling evidence as well that the unions have become suppliers of goods and services to the authority whilst it seems that management turns a blind eye to this reality.”

Further, they found a “Staff culture with an ingrained mentality of earning inflated remunerations without attendance, addition of value and excessive union interference.”

CHALLENGES TO MOVING TO A FUTURE MODEL

Staffing

WASA currently operates with an organization structure that differs vastly from that which was approved by Cabinet in 1999 for 1,723 employees. Its employee listing currently stands at 4,828 employees which consists of 3,043 monthly paid and 1,785 daily paid workers. This figure excludes the 47 members of the executive management team; the Adopt a River Programme (14); the Beetham Wastewater Project (23); the Tobago Wastewater Project (4); the Tobago Expansion Services Project (8); and Customer Contact Centre Representatives (31).

The report also suggested that WASA is “also exceedingly top-heavy” with 426 management personnel including eight directors; 19 heads; 32 senior managers; 88 departmental managers; 25 assistant managers; 35 section managers; 23 unit managers; and 196 supervisors.

Irregular and Unjustified Practices

The report found, “A lack of accountability is deeply embedded in the culture and governance style of WASA. The Authority’s aversion to a result-oriented order of business and its no-consequence environment is evident by a a lack of routine performance assessments which has created an avenue for corruption.”

Organization Culture

WASA has an embedded non-productive socially oriented work culture that is buttressed by a view that given the critical nature of the resource, the State is duty bound to maintain the operations of the institution. Successive management teams have proven powerless to the unions’ encroachment on the Authority’s rights to manage, direct and own its’ operational affairs.

Water quality has been deteriorating

Over the past 20 years but mores in the past decade, the majority of Trinidad’s watershed areas has been showing significant degradation caused primarily by unregulated and poor land use practices which pollute rivers which are WASA’s major source of supply, with chemical contaminants and heavy sedimentation. Water pollution, particularly high turbidity, after heavy rainfall events regular results in plant shutdown as the majority of WASA’s plants are not designed to treat water with high sediment levels.

Heavy reliance on desalinated water

The over-reliance on desalinated water from Desalcott places WASA in a very vulnerable position and creates supply-chain risks.

This vulnerability is manifested in the reduction of production levels by Desalcott from time to time, which is seen as a leverage to secure settlement of outstanding indebtedness to the company.

The cost of desalinated water coupled with the contractual requirement to pay for same in US dollars has crippled WASA and resulted in a direct strain on the Treasury.

EPA: We are aware of corruption at WASA

Aware of the transformation at WASA which they claimed has been ongoing, the Estate Police Association (EPA) which represents approximately 150 security officers said they have been advocating for proper management systems to be put in place for a number of years.

EPA President Deryck Richardson expressed concern as he said, “There is no need to throw out the baby with the bath water.”

He stated, “If there is a management issue, then you need to change the management systems.”

Waiting on the final report which is expected to be laid in Parliament later this week, Richardson said the EPA was not in support of the privatization of WASA as they believe, “This is not in the best interest of Trinidad and Tobago.”

The EPA met with WASA yesterday regarding outstanding negotiations for their members.

Richardson said this report would now force them to reevaluate the situation and he immediately called on Public Utilities Minister Marvin Gonzales to meet with them.

Admitting he was aware of corrupt practices at the state-run organization, the EPA head recalled the murder of former Operations Manager Derek Hooker who was shot dead outside his home in 2015; and the mysterious fire at the St Joseph Head Office in 2016 – as he said, “If there are persons who are responsible and have not been performing…then by all means, they must be replaced. But the rank and file workers on the ground who been working within the constraints…ought not to suffer because of the mismanagement of WASA.”

He went on, “The working class has not had an impact on the decisions taken by the management.”

Richardson said a large number of persons depend on this job to live and also send their kids to school,as he concluded, “Management should leave our workers intact…there is no need to replace WASA, they need to restructure WASA. “

Efforts to contact the National Union of Government and Federated Workers (NUGFW) proved futile.

The Public Services Association will host a media briefing today at 10 am at its office on Abercromby Street, Port-of-Spain.