Why water is a political issue
“My meter has not had any water passing through in 21 months,” a St Joseph resident told a local talk show earlier this week, as public outcry became noticeably louder over the apparently worsening water supply problem in that parish, as well as in some sections of St Thomas and neighbouring parishes.
Coming from an expat, a conclusion drawn from the caller’s unmistakable accent, it is unlikely the person will be accused of playing politics for daring to speak out. It was this revealing comment, more than anything else I have heard in recent weeks, that graphically drove home the magnitude and gravity of the crisis.
That this should be the plight of some Barbadians in this, our 50th year of Independence, is nothing short of a national disgrace. Put yourself in their situation and imagine, for one moment, having no water flowing through your tap for 21 months! Little wonder affected residents regard the Freundel Stuart administration’s decision to spend $7 million on Independence celebrations as indifferent and insensitive in the face of their suffering.
The regime’s priorities are clearly mixed up! The community where I live is fortunate to have a generally reliable water supply. For that, I am thankful. There are occasional outages, of course, and when they occur, even though they usually last no more than about five hours, I feel like a fish out of water. Especially if it’s a hot day and I did not get a chance to shower before the supply went.
I can therefore imagine the suffering which the good folk of St Joseph and the other affected parishes are going through. Particular concern, though, must relate to the elderly, the sick, the disabled and young children, all of whom fit into the category of “vulnerable”. My heart goes out to them.
Hardly anyone would dispute there is a problem stemming from declining rainfall. Though officials point mainly to climate change as the culprit, it may also be a case of our chickens coming to roost. In the name of development, we have over the years destroyed so many trees, only to replace them with concrete structures.
The Barbados Water Authority (BWA) cannot be blamed for insufficient rainfall. What it can be blamed for, though, is ineffective management of available water resources. For example, so much water goes to waste across the island daily because of gushing leaks which sometimes remain unattended for weeks.
Ultimately, however, the BWA’s effectiveness is dependent on the resources placed at its disposal. These resources, especially financial, come from the Central Government. Full responsibility for this crisis, therefore, must fall at the feet of the Democratic Labour Party-constituted political directorate.
Whether the Dems care to accept it or not, the fact of the matter is that they were elected by the people of Barbados to fix national problems. If they are failing miserably in this regard, it is the democratic right of Barbadians to complain, even to protest, as long as it is within the law.
It does not matter whether the current water woes can be traced back to the time of the former Barbados Labour Party (BLP) administration. Barbados is a democracy and when a government fails to perform, it suffers the fate of being voted out of office which is what happened to BLP in 2008. From then, the onus shifted to the Dems to fix the problem.
Interestingly, within two years of the Dems taking office, water rates were sharply increased on the promise that the additional money would go to improve the water supply. The results of these efforts to date are unsatisfactory in the public’s estimation.
Responding to last week’s protest by frustrated St Joseph residents outside the BWA’s spanking new multi-million dollar headquarters, the Minister of Water Resources, Dr David Estwick, suggested the organizers were playing politics. I know Dr Estwick is a smart guy. In fact, I would say that he possesses one of most analytical and sharpest minds in the DLP. I was surprised, therefore, to see Dr Estwick contradict himself on this issue.
“Water is not a political issue,” he reportedly said. “Water is a life and death issue.” To the contrary, water is very much a political issue, I submit. It can be so categorized because water, to use the minister’s own acknowledgement, is “a life and death issue”. Countries have fought wars, the result of a political decision, because of water.
The late American political theorist Harold Lasswell’s definition of politics is most apt in this particular scenario and supports the point I am making. Lasswell contended that politics is about “the process of who gets what, when, and how”. Such decisions are always based on a hierarchy of needs and the priority attached to each by the government of the day.
Since water is so indispensable to life, it stands to reason that fixing the supply problems, naturally, should be a top priority where the allocation of scarce public resources is concerned. It is unfortunate but largely as a result of how the Dems have handled this issue, many Barbadians have concluded that the regime sees a $7 million Independence celebration as more important.
From a political management perspective, the water problem in the north amounts to a crisis but the Government does not come across as treating it as such. Indeed, what sadly stands out is that Prime Minister Stuart, with whom the buck stops, has not yet seen it fit to tour the affected parishes, offer an apology to and engage residents to hear their concerns and suggestions.
Such a response would have at least conveyed that he cared. What we have here is another case of his leadership not rising to the occasion and making a real difference. I sometimes wonder who is advising him, not that I personally would like to. If I were advising a prime minister in such circumstances, he or she would have toured the hardest hit communities long ago, accompanied by top officials of the BWA and other key technocrats,
After listening intently to the people, he or she would have convened a major community meeting shortly afterwards – within a day or two — where a detailed plan of action would be presented with specific timelines to be met. On this there would be no let-up. The Prime Minister would personally have to take charge, demand accountability at all levels, ensure the people are fully updated on a regular basis, and, most importantly, that results are delivered.
The plan of action would have tackled the problem on two fronts. In the short term, the aim would be to bring immediate relief by ensuring households get water at least three hours a day. The question of how would be left to the engineers. The long term approach would focus on delivering a permanent, sustainable solution. If foreign expertise is deemed necessary, it would be sourced as a matter of urgency.
A crisis of this kind calls for hands-on leadership, not the type Mr Stuart has been providing. Is it any wonder that people feel sometimes as if Barbados is collapsing under the watch of this Government with the myriad unresolved problems in transport, education, health care, law and order, to name a few?
That is the unflattering legacy which this on-the-way-out DLP administration is leaving after two terms in office. As for Mr Stuart, he seems destined, irreversibly, to go down in history as the most disappointing leader Barbados has had since Independence.
Psychologically, Barbadians have already crossed the Rubicon. They are just waiting patiently for Election Day to do so physically and make it official. Their X’s, unmistakably, will do the talking.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and longstanding journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)