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Gov'ts must keep control of consumers' water supplies - Consultant says private-sector should be approached to assist with funding

Published:Friday | October 28, 2016 | 12:00 AMJovan Johnson
Kathleen Riviere-Smith, former head of the Bahamas’ Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority.

Montego Bay, St James:

Declaring that she's a socialist when it comes to critical resources, Kathleen Riviere-Smith, a former head of the utility regulation authority in The Bahamas, believes Caribbean governments must keep control of water while aggressively pursuing private-sector funding for infrastructure improvements to ensure the resource's reliability and affordability.

The debate has been raging in Jamaica, with workers of the country's National Water Commission (NWC) some months ago expressing their concerns in a protest about Government's intentions.

The issue is high on the agenda of the 14th Organisation of Caribbean Utility Regulators (OOCUR) conference under way in St James, where more than 160 regional and international experts are having their say on how regulation can strike a balance of development, consumer satisfaction, and profit motives of investors.

Riviere-Smith said governments are struggling to provide affordable, reliable water to Caribbean residents, but, according to her, that is not reason enough to turn over the provision of the resource into private hands.

"Water sanitation is also one of the sustainable development goals by the United Nations. There's a realisation that a lot of us do not have clean, potable drinking water much less water to function daily. We need to look at ways of improving the supply of potable water. Even though we are island nations, we've not been doing the best in terms of how we supply potable water," the former head of the Bahamas' Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority told The Gleaner.

"A lot of the water companies are still state-owned, which is a challenge, but when it comes to that aspect, I tend to be a bit socialist. Water can remain with the government or a municipality, however, they need to remove the politics out of it and it needs the capital investment."


Seek Partnerships


The consultant said governments should try to establish partnerships with the private sector to facilitate the investments in water-supply infrastructure, which Riviere-Smith said is needed throughout the Caribbean.

In the Turks and Caicos Islands, some residents say they have had enough of the experiment with privatisation.

Kenva Williams, who is attending the OOCUR conference, said he believed that the government authorities of the British overseas territory should try to retake control of the provision of water.

"I'm in a situation, personally, where I'm located in the islands, in Providenciales in the Blue Hills area. Mind you, you may have water in the Blue Hills area, but above 20 feet, there is no water," said Williams, the director of technology for the territory's Telecommunications Commission.

"In going to the private company, to get access to city water, they are saying I need some $50,000. We sign a petition and we give it to the water company. There were probably about 20 signatures, and we showed them where they could make the money in less than a year. But at the same time, they are saying that that is not justified financially in their view," he said.

He added: "They want to make a profit and government doesn't have any authority over the private company to say go ahead and give those citizens water. It may only be 20 persons, but at the same time, we are people."


No regulatory authority


Williams said he was not aware of a regulatory authority set up since the authorities in 2008 divested the water utility to the Cayman Islands-based Consolidated Water Co Ltd to provide for the more than 30,000 people on five of the seven islands of the tourism-dependent territory.

In July, the lead Jamaica Government minister on water, Dr Horace Chang, said the administration was moving ahead with privatising the NWC, noting that there are benefits in obtaining capital to pay off debts and enable further investments.

In July last year, Mark Barnett, the president of the NWC, who was then acting in the post, said he was against privatising, noting that water was too significant a resource for its management to be left in private hands.