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Now fix the problem, Mr Minister

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The nation owes Public Utilities Minister Emmanuel George something of a debt of gratitude for his decision to raise the issue of the neglect of the facilities at the Caroni Water Treatment Plant in the context of his response to an Opposition question in the Senate on whether the Government had commissioned a study on the privatisation of the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA). It was open to the minister to offer a simply no to the direct parliamentary question. Instead, he chose to couch his denial in the context of a scathing attack on the former administration for its neglect of an institution as important to the nation’s well-being as WASA. “If one wanted to privatise an agency like WASA, the worse time to privatise is when it is in this type of condition—when all of its infrastructure is depleted. All of the infrastructure has been neglected by the previous government and this threatens—I want to underscore, this threatens—the well being of the country because we depend so much on that facility which is our largest, our flagship producer of water.”

The extent of the nation’s dependence on the Caroni Water Treatment Plant, which the minister was referring to, is quite significant. The plant has a rated production capacity of 75 million gallons of water a day, which is just over one-third of the total water produced in this country. Some 57 per cent of the surface water produced in this country comes from the Caroni Water Treatment Plant, which supplies water to large swathes of the population living along the east-west corridor and south Trinidad.
There is no denying the importance of the Caroni Water Treatment Plant to the daily well-being of about 400,000 people in this country. In raising the alarm, the minister identified the number of faults that are affecting the trash removal racks and other filter systems at the water treatment plant, which he said had been “considerably neglected” and “is hanging on by a shoestring.”
Minister George should know a great deal about the conditions at WASA.
Before retiring in 2008, Mr George was employed as a public servant, rising to the highest level of his profession when he was promoted to permanent secretary in the T&T public service. For many years, he served, with distinction, as the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Public Utilities.

This means that the current Minister of Public Utilities was the top public servant dealing with WASA for many years. As such, he would have received technical reports from the utility on the need to upgrade its filtration system. As the PS in the Ministry of Public Utilities, it was the responsibility of Mr George to provide policy advice to the various ministers he served under—especially advice in an area as important as ensuring that the filtration system remains fully functional. Did Minister George, when he was PS George, make a recommendation to a Minister of Public Utilities for an emergency subvention to fix WASA’s filtration problem? It needs to be stated that it would only have been the responsibility of the permanent secretary to offer advice. It would have been up to the ministers to determine exactly how that money was spent. The final responsibility for the expenditure of money in our system rests the politicians. It should go without saying that having raised a public alarm over the possible deterioration in the quality of our drinking water, that the minister would act expeditiously in resolving this problem. It should go without saying that a minister with so much technocratic experience of public utilities would ensure that the problem never reoccurs.


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