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Promises and priorities

There is no doubt that, by and large, Barbados has managed the protection and distribution of its potable water supply well — that is, if you are able to separate the leaking mains of the Barbados Water Authority from the total equation.

For decades Barbadians all over the world have boasted about the quality of the water flowing from our taps and the fact that travelling to the standpipe to fill a bucket or barrel is as foreign to the vast majority of the population, as a blizzard in St. Philip.

“Don’t drink the tap water!” is not something that is said to persons visiting the island, and even today, when drinking bottled water is fashionable even in metropolitan cities, many Barbadians still believe it to be a waste of money when “government juice” is freely available.

But these days, for a variety of reasons, we do not appear to be as vigilant with our water supply as we used to be or as we should be. We have heard the rumours before about the deteriorating quality of what we drink, but never the detailed explanation from those responsible as we got yesterday.

In fact Minister of Water Resource Management, Dr. David Estwick said that for a “very, very” long time “we had known that the water quality in Barbados was deteriorating”.

He added: “We have the evidence that the total nitrate as a concentration in relation to the litres of water is almost and at times beyond what the WHO would consider drinkable water in relation to total nitrogen.”

The minister did not say the water was unsafe, but he did say that at times the level of nitrates in the water flowing through our taps has been beyond what the World Health Organisation considers “drinkable”.

If we understand what the minister and other officials of the BWA said yesterday, it would appear that the main area of concern is the Belle catchment, which coincidentally supplies the largest portion of the drinking water consumed in Barbados daily.

We know from past disclosures that agricultural practices and the living standards and habits of communities contribute in no small measure to the problem, but in the case of the Belle, the largest contributor is human.

The answer, we are told, revolves around two major construction projects — a reverse osmosis plant to treat the water before it flows into the mains and a sewage treatment plant to reduce the volume of contaminants that can get into the water in the first place.

Talk of the reverse osmosis plant is relatively new, but on the issue of a treatment plant, governments past and present have been in a state of virtual slumber for decades. In fact, we don’t think we are wrong when we say that talk of a treatment plant for the Belle goes back to the days when Dr. Don Blackman represented St. Michael East. Since him it has been represented by Joseph Tudor, Trevor Prescod and now Kenny Best and still there is no plant.

As far back as the 1970s we recall raging debates about illegal settlements in the Belle posing a risk to the water supply; we recall heated debates as residents complain they are left to live like animals because the BWA would not provide them with water services; the visits by MPs and the promises of everything from relocation, to roads and water to a sewage treatment plant.

More than a generation later, these communities are settled, many homes still without water and the treatment plant is still a promise — but now with the disclosure that at times we have been drinking water with nitrate levels beyond what the WHO recommends for “drinkable water”.

Based on the statements by officials at the BWA, it appears that plans for the reverse osmosis plant may be well advanced, but it looks like we will continue for years to pour contaminants into our aquifers at the Belle, while relying on reverse osmosis to take them out.

We could be wrong, but it would seem like common sense would dictate that priority number one would be to keep them from going in in the first place. But what do we know?!

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