Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Gimme Water!

The sounds or running water are amongst the soothing things in life. Music composed with water as its theme brings calm, and Handel's Water Music is a perfect example. So, why does the topic of water in Barbados bring ire?

When Mr. David Thompson donned his Finance Minsiter's cape in mid-May and presented the 2009 Budget, he filled Barbados with fear. He warned that an increase in water rates "has been requested" (so polite). Water might not have been flowing freely through the pipes, but it started to flow freely from many eyes. He dangled the sword of Damocles: "The increase as recommended by some analysts was in the vicinity of 100 percent of existing rates. I consider this high and not practical in the current economic environment." But, like the stall holder in the market, he was, however, going to give us all a bargain, and with the announcement last week, we heard: "Not, 100 percent. Not 90 percent...But only 60 percent."

From the time of the Budget, knees (which had no water on them) had started quaking. Teeth (being brushed or not) had started chattering. Wo-yoi! People had been thinking about how they could adjust to having to pay much more to bathe and wash their cars and water their plants. Wo-yoi! People flagged ahead of the increase that it would be hard on the poor man and woman, and that some people really were already using as little water as possible, short of just lying down and dying. But, I heard richer people squealing too: "Only one shower a day?"

But...but...We had heard stories of how bad were the finances of the Barbados Water Authority (BWA), and this was going to continue for some time; worse, hardly any cost-cutting was possible. The 'caped crusader' had told us in the Budget: "Approximately B$80 million of BWA’s operating budget is comprised of costs that cannot easily be reduced without significantly reducing the level of service." For the arithmetically inclined, that meant wages (29%), desalinated water (13%), depreciation (12%), and electricity (29%). David slayed us with the prophetic words: "The projected financial position for the next three years indicates that BWA’s costs will continue to outstrip revenues resulting in operating losses and cash deficits. The accumulated net-loss position is projected at B$121M and the accumulated cash deficit at B$25M."

Dressed as the PM, the 'caped crusader' had twisted the knife ahead of the increase, when he exposed the level of BWA arrears (see Nation report, June 21). He reported that 10,000 customer disconnections were due each month, and that arrears were B$26 million, saying residential customers accounted for about 60 per cent of that figure. Wo-yoi! I have been one of those who argued that, before dealing with the arrears--the amounts and what was really driving customers to withhold payments--an increase would be pouring money down the drains. Can't pay now? Won't pay after an increase. Paying now? Then any large increase could push you into the non-paying group. But who listens to me?

But, I try to be fair. If I believed that I was already doing my personal best regarding water use, what could I say for BWA regarding the services it gave? I looked a little at how the BWA goes about things., I see their operations first hand, as I live close to one of their depots. But, I was pleased initially to find on the government's website, a document entitled "Improved Service Delivery from the Barbados Water Authority" (see link). It mentions jolly terms: for instance, "customer service enhancements" and "a new billing schedule coupled with greater payment options for customers" (meaning paying through SurePay and via Internet banking). It mentions too that the BWA "has also undertaken a review of the channels through which it communicates with its customers and will shortly be implementing a new communications system to enhance the efficiency of interacting with customers". (That statement seems to have been written before new communications system to enhance the efficiency of interacting with customers was operationalized.)

It reported on why arrears were as they were: "In previous months, the BWA’s billing system was behind, in that we read meters at the end of the month, billed 30 days later and gave customers 30 days to pay. With our new billing schedule, customers can expect a more timely and consistent delivery of their bills, thereby enhancing their ability to keep their payments up to date and to assist with better budgeting. The Barbados Water Authority will be reading meters daily, generating bills every day for delivery to customers who will now have 20 days in which to pay." They said convincingly (to them, at least): "The biggest benefit to the customer however, will be the elimination of the occurrence of timely payments for the previous bill, showing as arrears on the current bill." In other words, BWA wont tell you that you are in arrears when you are not. Oh. OK. I could not figure out what that did to the PM's exposition of arrears. But the bold and beautiful BWA "will be launching a renewed thrust to reduce arrears in the coming months". Praise the Lord!

The new channels of communication seem blocked, however. We hear of callers to the BWA being subjected to abusive replies when trying to seek information about why no water was running through the pipes. One caller on Brass Tacks was so upset last week that merely recalling the incident that morning and the abuse hurled from the BWA end of the phone, sounded as if tears were falling. (If so, I hope they were saved for a later face wash.) WIthin an hour of a few similar calls to the radio call-in program, theBWA responded to say that there was a burst water main and that they were working on it. This is the brave new BWA?

Now the deed has been done. Manufacturers are doing what we knew they would--announcing that the increased cost of water will flow through to higher prices for such essentials as rum and beer; dairy products too. But, guess what? They want concessions. Oh, really?

Most people believe that the BWA is a Gulag of inefficiency, and the PM/Finance Minister agrees. Again, in the Budget speech: "Too much money is wasted on pumping water of which a great deal (30% - 60%) is wasted through leaky drains, leaving residents without an adequate water service." Unfixed burst pipes. Leaks that waste water. Imagine if Amazon.com or the Post Office worked that way: would you be happy to keep getting half of the book you ordered because Amazon kept losing the pages, or only half of the letters that were sent because the postman kept dropping his sack in the river? "There you have it", would not go down well.

I read more about the new BWA: "Our overall customer service is also being improved to ensure a more timely, responsive and accurate response to customer issues....Our customers are becoming more demanding, hence the need to refine our procedures and operations to cope with a more demanding customer. Customers have been demanding a speedier response to their issues from burst pipes and mains to water outages, water discolouration and billing queries....An improved issues-tracking system is coming, which will allow our internal customers to track each issue from beginning to end in a seamless way." These customers are just too much with their demands for speedier responses. This is the Caribbean. We don't do speedier. I think that the water that is drunk in the BWA needs to be tested for the presence of some mind-bending drugs.

Minister Haynesly Benn is responsible for water, and he clearly has little to offer us other than 'trust' and 'hope' : "I am trusting that once the rates go up, I suspect from just Bds$20 a month, it's going to go like $32. Don't bother about the percentage increase, dollar value, $20 to $32 sounds steep to some people, but I'm hoping that they would minimise our use of water... I'm trusting that Barbadians would find sensible ways to save water throughout the house."

Minister Benn said there were areas where BWA workers could help save water, but were hampered sometimes because of how the system worked. It's not our fault: Blame the system! He gave an example of workmen being sent out on a site but were could not do repairs in an area close by, because they had to get the proper paperwork and instruction from the office first. Meanwhile, water was gushing down the drain. In view of that, Mr. Benn said he was looking to the implementation of the Cabinet-approved 24-hour work system for key operations at the BWA. I don't see the connection, but there you have it.

No sweet music is ringing in my ears on this matter, and while words flow freely, they wash over me as having little bearing on what really needs to be done. Instead, I feel the drip-drip of water torture; not quite water boarding, but pretty bad.

Government should be about making hard decisions, but it should also be about getting people to support those hard decisions. The handling of the BWA and its financial and operational problems is beginning to look emblematic in not following that principle.

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