Provide water to poor or risk diseases
Dr Kingsley Thomas, president of the National Water Commission (NWC), said yesterday that Jamaica risks severe social and environmental consequences if it fails to devise an appropriate strategy to deliver potable water to its citizens, particularly the poor.
"I think the country needs to face, frontally, what it is we are going to do about the so-called social water. If we don't provide social water to those persons who cannot afford it, the health and environmental costs might far outweigh what it costs [to provide it]," Thomas said.
The outgoing chairman of the NWC, while appearing before Parliament's Public Administration and Appropriations Committee, said the entity's approach to the provision of water will have to be revisited in order to ensure his fears are not realised. According to Thomas, while the NWC has to operate efficiently, it must be understood that water is "a major public commodity [and] without it, you can have serious outbreaks of diseases".
His comments followed an intervention by Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert, member of parliament for South Trelawny, who said water was not a luxury, but an essential item.
BASKET TO CARRY WATER
"We are going through, in the country, a major health problem with the outbreak … of chik-V. Water is an essential requirement, particularly in dealing with these outbreaks and epidemics that we are having," the member said.
She argued that the NWC has literally been given a basket to carry water, and stressed that Jamaica's economic programme, which is supported by the International Monetary Fund, has made it more difficult for the entity to achieve its aim of water delivery to Jamaicans.
Thomas noted that in addition to old, leaking pipes, the NWC has to be aware of the political environment in which it operates.
"Not only is water a social necessity, it is also a highly politically sensitive commodity. And so you have the various pressures to deliver to areas, and that is a fact," Thomas said.
The NWC produces 5.3 billion gallons of water monthly, and bills are sent out for 1.2 billion gallons of water, while collections are made for 1.1 billion gallons.
"We are producing significant [amounts] of water - in excess of four billion gallons - for which we are receiving no revenue," Thomas said.
He told the committee that the NWC has about 10,000 kilometres of pipelines in its network, 75 per cent of which are 50 years old and leaking.
Thomas said illegal connections and leakage have been a major problem for the NWC.
CALL FOR FLAT RATES
Nonetheless, the outgoing chairman wants to see the implementation of a flat-rate system in low-income areas.
"I think we place too much emphasis on this meter business. The new state-of-the art meters are upwards of US$120, probably the same amount it costs to install. You put those meters in a low-income area, one to 10, you are not going to collect," Thomas said.
He noted that, at present, there are 114,000 disconnected accounts at the NWC, which he said reflects customers who now get water without paying.
All those lines, he said, have a meter installed on them.
"You can still lock off the people if they don't pay the flat rate … . We have a meter culture. We have to deal with the flat rate, particularly in the inner-city communities," Thomas said, while arguing that one of the surest benefactors from the reliance of meters are contractors who supply the items.
"That is probably why I am outgoing president, [but] I don't think metering is all that big a thing," Thomas said.