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Govt turns up pressure on WASA

Published: 
Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Government cannot afford to keep investing in the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) and stand helplessly by as the capital expenditure continues to trickle down the drain.

This is according to Public Utilities Minister Robert Le Hunte as he responded to claims that WASA’s senior management team was on a “witch hunt” to purge the company of under-performing employees.

Repeating the tagline he has now become known for that, “It cannot be business as usual,” Le Hunte confirmed the board of directors had been mandated to review the operations of the state agency.

He confirmed WASA was in receipt of an annual subvention in excess of $3 billion, of which salaries was estimated to be over $1 billion.

He said it was simply not sustainable to continue operating as before as this was a heavy drain on the treasury.

“For the amount of water that WASA produces per gallon, when compared to global indicators from other utilities that produce water, the amount of staff that WASA probably needs is about 3,200 or in that vicinity.”

The minister said in 2010, an offer for a voluntary separation enhancement package (VSEP) had resulted in the staff complement being brought down to 3,800.

However, he added, “That number has now ballooned back up to over 5,000.”

Le Hunte claimed a number of employees who had accepted the VSEP had found themselves back in WASA based on the fact that some of the jobs which were supposed to become redundant after the VSEP, had not been made so.

Confirming an audit was under way, the minister said it would assist in determining the organisational structure and its corporate governance role from top to bottom.

He warned, “There are no sacred cows,” because his administration was serious about change and were prepared to, “shake the tree and see what comes out.”

Pointing to the inefficiencies plaguing WASA, Le Hunte said close to 50 per cent of the water being produced was lost via non-revenue means, and coupled with ageing infrastructure, had forced government to explore options in the short to medium about how they could get more for their investment.

Faced with accusations that WASA has breached the collective bargaining agreement currently in place, Le Hunte acknowledged that WASA has a very liberal collective agreement.

Despite this, the minister argued, “managing costs can also be done within the context of your collective agreement.”

Le Hunte insisted the board was trying to get a handle on overtime.

“There are a number of allowances that are paid to people and they want to do an audit of who actually gets these, so we are doing the work to try to ascertain where in the organisation that we have excess costs and how we can manage these costs within the organisation.”

Denying he was against trade unionism, Le Hunte declared, “There are no directives from me not to follow the collective agreement. We are law abiding citizens and I will not encourage anyone to break collective agreements. However, I am also asking that within the boundaries of the collective agreement, there are methods under which we can do things differently to improve efficiency and that’s what we are doing at WASA and T&TEC for that matter.”

Revealing his personal goal on how they can utilise existing staff to respond to reports of leaking pipes and water mains, Le Hunte spoke about an aggressive move to repair and reduce the numbers being reported.

He said in the last two weeks, they have been able to effect repairs to more than 1,700 leaks, but with 1,500 new leaks also being reported during that same time frame, Le Hunte anticipated that they were on track to achieving internal targets.

He commended WASA for responding positively to reports by the public as he said, “They are going out and repairing these leaks in a relatively short space of time.”

Seeking to broaden the public/private sector partnership moving forward, Le Hunte admitted government could no longer continue to borrow money to fix WASA.

He said it was his short-term goal to ensure that if persons were not able to receive water on a 24/7 basis, that they get water on a “24/4” basis.

He explained, “If individuals can get water at least four days a week throughout the country and we can bring that number up to an acceptable level of at least 70 per cent, then I feel we are making progress.

“But for us to achieve that, we need some new suppliers of water so we are now working with international consultants and exploring some new arrangements to achieve that.”

Last Tuesday, financial experts gathered to discuss T&T’s water situation as they looked at how the country’s present and future demands for water could be addressed.

At the time, Le Hunte noted “T&T has an abundance of water resources but demand is increasing. While the country’s infrastructure is old and inadequate, the sustainability of our water is being threatened by climate change, pollution, illegal connections, and leaking water pipes.”

He said this had formed the basis of government’s new National Water Resource Management Policy in 2017, as they searched for ways to confront these challenges.

With fixes already in train on the supply side, Le Hunte said improvements had to be introduced on the demand side as well.

Revealing T&T had one of the lowest tariffs in the world, coupled with consumption and other bad habits, Le Hunte said, “we have to manage the demand.”

One of the solutions was installing water meters in each household so people can monitor their water consumption.

He said only three per cent of residential customers in the country had meters, but it was time to bring this number up.

Aware of the huge cost such an undertaking presented, Le Hunte said, “These are the things we should have been doing when we had a lot of money but we don’t have wiggle room now. We have to do them, so we have to explore other innovative ways of how we can do what needs to be done.”

Le Hunte concluded, “It’s a combination of activities all working together to line up, which will help us deal with it. It is no one thing we can do that will give us an answer.”

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