On easing our water woes now

GUESTXCOLUMNNever let a good crisis go to waste –– the current water situation in Barbados is an opportunity to support long needed changes in how our water is managed. However, to achieve this we need a thorough understanding of the problems to be able to look for long-term sustainable solutions rather than short-term costly “fixes”.

Barbados is facing two different issues that are responsible for the present woes. They are related but how to address them is very different.

The first problem concerns how much fresh water the island has –– its water resources. The second problem concerns how those freshwater resources are managed. These two issues are related, because if there is not enough fresh water available, then having the best abstraction and distribution system in the world will not prevent us from having to turn to waste water reclamation or costly desalination to augment the inadequate supply.
On the other hand, if you have all the water you need, but the water distribution system is very inefficient in getting the water to the people, then it’s not much help. Barbados has both problems.

How much fresh water is available depends on the weather –– rainfall. Some rainfall runs off into the sea; some rainfall soaks into the ground and is stored there; and some, not much, may be stored in rainwater tanks.

There is not much we can do about the rainfall. The rainfall last year was about half of what we normally get. We were told it was going to be below normal –– but was anything done about that warning?

We are told we should expect the below average rainfall situation to continue this year –– we will be forced by circumstances to sit up and take notice. So we are going to have to get by with much less. There are some things we could do:

1. Capture more rainfall by incentivising rainwater harvesting by homeowners and farmers for secondary usages (for example, irrigation, car washing).

2. Maximize groundwater recharge by ensuring that our network of suck wells are well maintained and by impounding more run-off where feasible.

3. Reclaim waste water. The Bridgetown and the South Coast Sewerage systems combined collect over four million gallons per day of water that is treated, and then discharged into the sea. There is a plan to collect a further four million gallons per day of water from the West Coast, when or if we ever build the West Coast Sewerage system. That’s eight million gallons per day of potentially available water that could be treated and reused directly for non-potable purposes or indirectly reused by groundwater recharge.

The reality is that whatever we do, as a result of climate change there is going to be less rainfall available in the future. So we have to do some serious thinking about this now; tomorrow is too late.

The second part of the problem, and we would argue the priority issue, is the water distribution system. Again, we can think about this in two parts: the physical infrastructure, and the operation and management of the infrastructure.

Much of the water supply system was built a long time ago and, like people, as it gets older, things don’t work as well as they once did. We see the evidence of this by the number of leaking and bursting pipes.

Over the last ten years there has been an average of three bursts per day, every day. Unlike with people though, we can put new pipes in. The Barbados Water Authority (BWA) currently pumps about 30 million gallons per day of water into its distribution network, but only just over half of that reaches the consumers.

To pump nearly twice as much water as consumers actually receive has made the BWA the largest single consumer of electricity on the island. Indeed, bringing non-revenue water (leaks and bursts) from the currently estimated 49 per cent to an industry best practice of less than ten per cent would not only solve the current supply problems, but would also present significant cost savings in energy costs to the water utility in the long term.

Deterioration is something we know happens and can expect. So a fair question would be: why wasn’t something done about it before things got to the present situation? Yes, a start has now been made to replace old pipes, which will have some impact on the water being lost (the current programme is estimated to reduce the losses from 49 per cent to about 40). But what is the plan once the current funding for pipe replacement runs out? How are the momentum and funding for leak detection and replacement going to be maintained?

This is very important because it speaks to the water availability problem –– making better use of what we already have.

We need to be assured that continued national economic development will not be compromised by the lack of access to fresh water. The development and implementation of a comprehensive integrated water resources management plan for the water sector is urgently required.

The call for such a plan will not provide any immediate comfort to the people in St Lucy and St Joseph who have no water now. But if properly developed and implemented, we can at least ensure that they never again suffer the same level of inconvenience and indignity.

(Dr Adrian Cashman is director of the Centre For Resource Management And Environmental Studies of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus.)

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