The ability to turn on your tap at the end of a long day and have water come pouring out is typically thought to be one of life’s simple pleasures.
After two days in the Bahamas at the Caribbean Water and Wastewater Association (CWWA) Conference and Exhibition, however, it has become clear that that simple pleasure may not be so simple after all.
We have been given hints of this this past summer — as in former years — in Jamaica where we suffered under the weight of drought conditions that forced at-times crippling water lock-offs across sections of the island.
But as burdensome as the past summer has been for Jamaicans, due to the El Niño phenomenon this year (expected, incidentally, to impact us again toward the end of the year), it is but a snapshot of what is in store.
This is given, among other things:
- current levels of water consumption in the region, which is upwards of 700 litres per person per day in at least one Caribbean island and more than 400 in several others — way above the 270 regarded as the proper standard for optimum systems;
- high levels of non-revenue water, which is over 60 per cent in islands like Jamaica and Guyana;
- poor infrastructure; and a
- lack of legislative, policy and institutional frameworks to bolster management of the sector.
All of these factors are exacerbated by the harsh reality of climate change — fuelled by human consumption of fossil fuels and poor agriculture and other practices that trigger earth’s warming due to the emission of ever increasing quantities of greenhouse gases (notably carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide).
The changing climate translates into a divergence from the weather to which we have grown accustomed over many decades, resulting in water-related impacts itemised for us by a recently concluded Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) study of the water sector in some 17 of its borrowing countries in the region.
Those impacts, articulated by David Boyce of Cole Engineering International in a presentation of the CDB study here on Tuesday, include:
- a decrease in precipitation (less rainfall);
- substantially drier wet seasons;
- drier and longer dry seasons;
- salt water intrusion that poses a threat to coastal aquifers; and
- higher rates of evapotranspiration (water loss from earth into the atmosphere).
In a word, substantially drier wet seasons, and drier and longer dry seasons mean droughts associated with a reduction in annual rainfall in a region heavily dependent on rain as its source of water.
This is given the reality of deficiencies in our storage capacity and a failure, over the years, to have that addressed.
There has, too, been a failure to adopt new technologies and on a large enough scale to make a difference in the interest of our water security. Think water harvesting, low flush toilets and faucets that help us to conserve.
All the while, we have the issue of a mindset of entitlement to water, with the thinking of many people being ‘and at no cost to us’.
“Unfortunately we come from a kind of water culture that says water should be free. So there are persons stealing water but don’t feel the same moral sense of guilt about it because they have told themselves a ‘massa God water; it fi free’ without recognising that to get water to them in the pipes, while the raw water resources is a gift from God, the commission has to expend millions of dollars every day to harness that raw water where it is, treat it [and] pipe it, some times miles from where it is to where they are,” said Charles Buchanan, communications manager with the National Water Commission, in a Gleaner interview I did with him a couple of months ago.
The electricity cost, he said, is J$500 million each month.
“It is very costly, and unfortunately sometimes we haven’t got this through enough to persons. People tend to take water for granted, especially when there is no drought and there is no scarcity,” he added.
Adoption of new technologies to meet the changing face of the water sector amidst climate and other pressing realities also includes the necessity to look at alternative energy sources to power the transportation of water.
This was a point well made by Deputy Managing Director of Jamaica’s Water Resources Authority Herbert Thomas, also during a recent interview.
“When you talk about moving water, there is a significant energy cost to that. So it means that you will have to look at the various combinations of options to see which is most beneficial. You would have to do a cost benefit analysis to see which engineering option is best suited,” he advised at the time.
So where does all this leave us?
Well, the truth is, while the Caribbean has been slow on the uptake with many things, there is a conversation taking place — as evidenced by the platform made available through the CWWA. And the road to change begins with just that — conversation.
At the same time, as evidenced by presentations made here at this the 23rd annual conference, there are a number of individuals and entities that have moved beyond conversation to action.
They include the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) Caribbean Regional Fund for Wastewater Management (CReW) project, whose implementing team is working to have wastewater looked at as a resource and a part of the answer to the water challenge facing the region.
There is the CDB that commissioned the recent study, adding to the existing body of research on water, and water and climate change in the region, which should also help to inform their funding priorities for the sector.
There are, too, entities like the Pan American Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and various country water resources authorities and other stakeholders working in their respective quarters of the region to arrest water challenges.
So there are some things happening.
Still, we need to continue the conversation and there is need for deeper and increased collaboration among all stakeholders — public, private, civil society — if we are to have water in our taps remain, if not a simple, then at least a not too complicated pleasure.