Newly appointed Public Utilities Minister Marvin Gonzales is promising to bring a reliable supply of water to deprived communities in the shortest possible time, stating that the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) is not in a good place with its service.
Gonzales, who said he loves a challenge, gave the commitment hours after Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley swore in his new Cabinet on Wednesday.
At 45, Gonzales is one of the new faces and babies in Rowley’s Cabinet.
Driven by ambition, Gonzales, who grew up in the hills of Paramin, planted crops and herbs with his family while attending Mucurapo Junior Secondary School. After completing his O-Level exams at Mucurapo Senior Comprehensive School, Gonzales joined the T&T Police Service where he made a vow to protect and serve the country.
Not satisfied, Gonzales left the police service to study law at the University of London as an external student. He then moved on to the Hugh Wooding Law School and pursued his Master in Laws at the University of the West Indies.
At age 26, Gonzales graduated as an attorney and then started working at the Ministry of Works and Transport as head of Legal.
In 2009, Gonzales drafted laws for the breathalyzer, mobile phone regulations and demerit points system.
“When I came into the ministry the road fatality rate was 268 annually. Because of those laws we have reduced the rate by more than half despite the doubting Thomases,” Gonzales told Guardian Media during an interview.
Having a passion for politics for almost two decades, Gonzales said he was inspired by Rowley’s strong style of leadership and went up to be screened for the Lopinot/Bon Air West seat where he was selected as the candidate for the August 10 General Election.
He came up against ILP’s Jack Warner and UNC’s Prakash Williams who he defeated.
Gonzales admitted to being surprised when assigned the key ministerial post at President’s House on Wednesday.
“I had absolutely no expectation whatsoever because I wanted to save myself from disappointments.”
In the last five years, a few ministers in Rowley’s Cabinet were put in charge of this ministry.
In 2015, Ancil Antoine was appointed to the post but was stripped of the position in 2016 during a Cabinet reshuffle.
Antoine was replaced by Fitzgerald Hinds who served for a few months until Robert Le Hunte took over the mantle in 2017.
In a shocking move, Le Hunte tendered his resignation in May and Hinds was back in the driver’s seat once more.
Gonzales said while every Government has challenges, he does not think WASA is a ‘blight’ state agency.
“I think WASA has done well. We never had an issue where the water supply has compromised the health of our nation. WASA has done this country proud, insofar as it relates to the safety of water being distributed to citizens.”
Gonzales, however, pointed out that WASA’s water supply to the nation must be improved.
“We can all agree that we are not in a good place as a country as it relates to the provision of an adequate water supply to various communities. Whatever that problem is…if it is a capacity, production, delivery or distribution problem, we know those need to be addressed. I am prepared to do whatever it takes to make sure that these issues are rectified in the shortest time.”
Battling COVID, making people accountable
As the Government continues to battle with the COVID-19 pandemic, Gonzales said citizens should have an adequate supply.
“The provision of water is critical in fighting this global pandemic.”
Gonzales suspects his biggest challenge would be to get public servants to put in a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.
“And when people do not do their work to hold them accountable, that’s the problem we have generally in T&T. We have an accountability problem. Once you hold people accountable, then you get agencies to work.”
He said WASA, T&TEC and TTST are statutory authorities run by boards.
“A manager in WASA ought not to have a restful night when you have so many communities not being serviced with water.”
Gonzales said during his walkabout in the constituency his heart went out to citizens who complained bitterly about lack of water. In his conversation with other MPs, Gonzales said their constituents also pleaded for a regular supply.
“And I told them (MPs) when the PNM forms the next Government the issue of a sustainable water supply should be high up on our list of priorities. I never imagined I would have been the minister of Public Utilities.”
Asked if restructuring WASA was on the cards, Gonzales said he wants to do “a deep-dive analysis” on the water company to identify its deficiencies and issues.
“Those areas that require addressing would have to be looked at to make WASA an agency that people of this country can be proud about.”
One thing for sure, Gonzales said WASA has to improve on its customer service and supply.
“At the end of the day we cannot go to people in the communities without water and say WASA’s ageing infrastructure or the dams are low. They are not concerned about that because people are being paid to address those problems.”
Installation of meters, Gonzales said would also get his attention.
“Metering is something that is being used all over the world…so I know it would have its benefits because people would have to pay for the water that they use.”
However, Gonzales said installing meters would have to be done on a phased basis.
“It is something I would imagine is very expensive and we would have to do it within our capacity at this point in time. So, you don’t want to put a heavy financial investment into metering when people don’t have a reliable water supply.”
With the coming on stream of housing developments, Gonzales said metering should form part of this thrust.
Regarding the $800 million WASA is owed by customers, Gonzales said this was another area he intends to focus on.
WASA has a customer base of over 400,000
“I am sure this is impacting on WASA’s capacity to deliver on its mandate.”
On Friday, Gonzales met the ministry’s permanent secretary and its technocrats.
“Once I get an update on all the agencies under my purview, I will draft my ten-point plan to deal with those issues. I love challenges. I think this is going to drive me. I intend not to disappoint myself and I intend to demonstrate to the Prime Minister that the confidence he has reposed in me is not going to be misplaced.”