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Prof Winston Suite

Almost 60 years after the Water and Sewerage Authority of T&T (WASA) was formed, dry taps in many households and protests over its poor service have become the norm.

With $10 billion in debt, an overtime bill of $468 million and $650 million owed to contractors, the Government is now suggesting a complete overhaul of how the company is managed, from its human resources to its finances.

Winston Suite, a Professor Emeritus at the University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine and Professor and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT), told the Sunday Guardian that WASA can be fixed without disbanding it.

Suite, who has worked as a consultant with WASA in the past, recommends that WASA reduces its outsourcing of projects, raise water rates and even seeks financing from foreign capital markets as a way to keep the company efficiently managed.

Under the Vision 20/20 project, Suite was chairman of the subcommittee that dealt with the infrastructure of which WASA and the T&T Electricity Commission (T&TEC) were a part. He has also done training at WASA in the past in the area of Project Management.

MANAGEMENT CHANGES

In a press conference last Tuesday, Public Utilities Minister Marvin Gonzales said Cabinet had decided to appoint Chairman Lennox Sealy as executive director. Sealy will assume control of WASA in the capacity of CEO as well, replacing acting CEO Poon King.

Suite does not believe that “magic appointments” at the management level will lead to fundamental changes at WASA.

“Governments frequently invite consultants, locals or foreigners, to write reports and the consultants always end up being new managers.”

When asked if sees Sealey bringing significant changes to WASA, Suite said he “does not know.”

Suite said that WASA’s problems go deeper than cosmetic changes like simply changing a CEO or a manager. What is needed is for the Government to articulate a vision for WASA and what role it should play in society.

To achieve this, the Government must have a public debate and consultation about where the country thinks that WASA should go.

Trinidad-born Dr Kiran Tota-Maharaj, director of Civil & Environmental Engineering—Aston University Birmingham, England, UK, who also spoke to the Sunday Guardian, believes that the changing of the senior management of WASA will not solve the company’s problems.

Tota-Maharaj is also a project engineer with the International Water Security Network.

He said it was highly unlikely and improbable that political appointments will have any short to long-term positive impact on the utility and what WASA needs is a professional makeover, rebranding its identity and purpose to society.

He noted that there are several engineers and industrial practitioners across T&T as well as the wider Caribbean region with specific skill sets such as being well-trained in water/hydraulics engineering, critical infrastructure and asset management who can be continually consulted and placed in these roles, on the boards, as well as appointed engineering managers within WASA and tasked with specific goals, visions, the new and novel direction of the State’s water utility.

OVERSTAFFED

The Public Utilities Minister said last week that by 2015 WASA’s workforce was roughly 5,000 in size and although he said that there will be no large-scale retrenchment at this time, he did say that WASA’s new management will have to conduct an audit into its staff composition.

Suite said he does not agree with voluntary separation packages (VSEP) and is recommending that what should be done is the “restructuring and refocusing” of WASA.

“The problem is that good workers take the money (from VSEP) and they go and the workers who they really want to get rid of, they don’t want to go.”

He said at one time, WASA was the “repository of expertise” in T&T with the best engineers and other professionals and the problem now is that they are now outsourcing a lot of what they should be doing with their in-house staff. This has led to inappropriate use of their human resources and an exodus of talent.

He recommended that WASA stop outsourcing and return to the days where their trained staff would do such projects.

Tota-Maharaj pointed out that WASA, like many state entities, is overstaffed and that this has been known to the public for years.

He said the overstaffing continues to place a heavy financial burden on the State with billions of dollars in debt, and WASA continues to suffer from inflated procurement costs.

Tota-Maharaj warned that T&T is in the middle of an economic depression and that the Government has to be very cautious during any restructuring exercise that will put people out of employment during these tumultuous economic times.

RAISING RATES

Suite also suggested that WASA must raise its rates to become financially viable. He noted that WASA’s rates are among the lowest in the Caribbean and even in the Latin American and Caribbean region.

“WASA is in trouble because they are in financial problems and this has to do with the deterioration of the transmission system and they constantly have to be doing contract work to repair. Raising rates is not an end in itself but is a necessary part of the solution. The Government does not have the money as the oil money has run out.”

Given WASA’s dire financial state and the realities of only a small minority of the country with water 24 hours a day, he advised citizens to buy tanks to store water.

He also said it was time that the authorities set up a metering system to identify water usage which would lead to an efficient billing system.

“They did engage in a metering experiment in Valsayn about ten years ago. They installed the meters and nothing came out of it. We are not charged for use of water-based on those meters, we are still charged on the old system. We need to start a national metering programme. I recommend that they should begin meeting in the built-up areas.”

SOLVING LEAKS

On the issue of leakages, Suite said WASA has a good system of collecting water from their dam but the problem is the distribution to the population.

“They have all these big pipelines and I was involved in construction like those in the Caroni Arena and the northern range. I would not say they are old, as the ones from the Caroni Arena are relatively new. Our problem is not transmission, our problem is distribution, the distribution system of the smaller pipes. Most of them are about six inches in diameter, distributing water from the large mains, most along the developed areas of the East/West Corridor. That is where we have our constant leaks and the need for repairs and the roads being dug up and cars being damaged.”

He acknowledged that the Government requires a “tremendous amount of money” to replace the smaller diameter pipes in the urban areas. This then leads to a vicious cycle where WASA’s management has to resort to fixing leaks as they do not have money for large-scale replacement of the smaller pipes.

Tota-Maharaj, meanwhile, said that leaks account for wastage of half the water supply across T&T and if approximately 45-50 per cent of supply is lost due to leakage and this problem continues to be evaded by WASA, then an alternate must be proposed such as outsourcing leak detection and maintenance services to the private industries.

“Furthermore, there are the possibilities of Dual-Mode Desalination Plants which can switch water sources from seawater in the dry season to rainwater in the wet season. Such water treatment plants feature dual intakes, whereby during the dry weather, seawater can be pumped and treated, and during wet weather periods with significant rainfall, the utilities can switch to treat surface water (from the dams/rivers) for producing potable water and utilising less energy.”

WATER VS WASTE MANAGEMENT

On the issue of the potable water function at WASA being separated from the wastewater function, Tota-Maharaj said the sewerage system (including a network of pipes, pumps, and mains) for the collection and treatment as well as the reuse of wastewater needs to be looked at periodically in terms of upgrades.

He took the stance that the wastewater aspect and functionality of the sewerage infrastructure should continue under one utility as WASA.

“Although the original goals of WASA’s sewerage and wastewater treatment were protecting water quality, due to the scarcity of water resources during the dry season and sustainability issues, there needs to be a paradigm shift on its wastewater and sewerage systems focusing on the recovering of water resources as well as nutrients and energy.”

He added that the concept of the collection, conveyance and discharging/disposing wastewater is long gone for several countries across the world.

“WASA needs to adapt quickly and catch up with the rest of the world on beneficial uses stemming from wastewater treatment plants including the key recovery of water resources. The demand for water resources will continue to grow, there are rising opportunities for WASA’s wastewater treatment plants to become resource recovery plants.”

Weighing in on this issue, Suite also said that he disagrees with the argument that the potable and drinking water functions of WASA should be separated from the wastewater functions.

“I have supervised many students over the years looking into the harvesting of wastewater. That is water thrown out of the treatment plants, whether they be WASA treatment plants or private treatment plants. We do not need any more water or any more dams. What we need to do is to harvest wastewater, that is water from the sewer system and water coming out from floods. 40 years ago consultants from Japan recommended that they should build shallow ponds along the highway for this.”

Suite recommended that shallow ponds be built that collect flood water and also serve the purpose to store water in the rainy season that can be used for agriculture and fire fighting and other uses.

Economist Ronald Ramkissoon:

Start a public debate to get stakeholders’ views

Economist Dr Ronald Ramkissoon told the Sunday Guardian that WASA’s poor financial state cannot continue as it drains the public purse with WASA being subsidised at almost $2 billion annually.

“We have had the subsidisation of state enterprises for decades. What happens is that every time we find ourselves in an economic crunch like this one, we tend to look at how we address loss-making enterprises like WASA. The question is, what else could we be doing with that almost $2 billion?”

He also said that some activities are now being done by the State that should be done by the private sector.

He referred to a report that was done under Dr Terrence Farrell, the State Enterprise Review Committee, which looked at many state enterprises and what should be done with them in terms of making them efficient and which should be privatised.

Given the magnitude of the economic problems the country faces and the cash crunch, he said it was a shame that there is so much wastage going on at WASA.

He said it was time the Government starts a public debate where different stakeholders give their views on whether inefficiently operated state-run companies like WASA should be privatised and should be continued to be operated for the public good.

THE WASA REPORT

A specially commissioned report into the operations of 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, were dissected by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley on Monday during a special sitting of the Cabinet. On December 11, 2020, Rowley received a copy of the report which Guardian Media was able to obtain.

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.

The report stated that 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.”

A sub-committee was formed in August of last year, soon after the general election, to review the operations of the authority.

Gonzales, who chaired the sub-committee, said a report was submitted to Dr Rowley on December 11, 2020 and to Cabinet on January 11.

The report of the sub-committee will be made available to the public after it is laid in Parliament on March 5.