Whither we with our water woes?

Today's WomanI have said in this column on previous occasions that the Barbados Water Authority (BWA) is an ungovernable colossus. I was sceptical at the time, owing to the weak structure of the Fair Trading Commission, whether it could effectively manage the regulation of the BWA.

I am satisfied that my observations were correct, based on the completely unacceptable service which customers of the Barbados Water Authority are enduring.

I experienced the first-hand frustration in my hometown Josey Hill in St Lucy recently.  The water is off in the area for four days at a time.

Neighbouring Boscobel has not had water on a consistent basis for about six weeks.

It is fairly surreal to hear the advertisements on the radio about water outages. However to have the daily experience in real life takes it beyond surreal.

Householders have to lug heavy buckets of water for use –– householders being pensioners, mothers, the infirm, people who have cars that become soaked from transporting water, and people who do not have cars to ease the load.

Thus far I have not heard the Barbados Water Authority indicate how water caught for home use should be stored. No guidelines on when to re-add sterilization tablets to the water, or how long to keep it for have been issued.

Yet the Minister of Health John Boyce is enjoying sound bite after sound bite from the opening of Infection Control Week at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH).   

Barbados has been reduced to a court of jesters; and it seems like we have all lost our collective fight to demand better.

Infection control has been deemed important enough at the QEH that we had an inaugural Infection Control Week launched. According to local media, the island now has an Infection Control Department and an Infection Control Officer. Since the Infection Control Officer is acting, I am assuming that the department and the post are new and still going through the arduous process of becoming “official”.

In this harsh economic reality, infection control at the QEH warranted this significant and urgent attention. The Minister of Health is quoted in the newspapers as saying that handwashing among staff and patients is key in reducing infections in the hospital. And, after the sound bite of news concludes there is the seeming five-minute advertisement about all the areas which water outages are affecting.

Am I the only one who knows that nurses, kitchen staff, orderlies and other personnel who work at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital live in St Lucy, St Andrew, St Joseph, St Thomas and St George? If you wash your hands effectively at the hospital, but you go home and brush your teeth in a cup and take a bucket bath; if you wash your uniform in less water because you need to conserve supply, does that not stand to affect what happens at the QEH itself?

Or is it that once you wash your hands, however you bathe and take care of other hygiene issues, infections within the QEH stand to be reduced by launching a week of activities?

Even if the water outages across Barbados do not affect any staff member of the QEH, here is another real worry. In a village where there has been no running water for between four days and six weeks, in an island where garbage is collected on average every two weeks, we are courting a public health disaster. The QEH is already struggling with the usual load, and an increased load from the rise in crime in the island. If Barbadians begin to fall from illnesses that thrive in areas without efficient supplies of water for hygiene and other uses, I fear that the outcome could be devastating.

While all these thoughts are floating around in my mind, everything is mum elsewhere in my sweet island. The Prime Minister, nor the Minister responsible for Water, nor the Minister responsible for Health, nor the Fair Trading Commission has uttered a word to the public of Barbados or the Barbadians specifically affected by the water outages.

A part of the Fair Trading Commission’s mandate, as I understood it, is to ensure the systematic break-up of monopolies in Barbados to the benefit of the consumer. Instead of protecting the public from the monopoly of the BWA, seemingly there is absolute silence from the regulatory body while Barbadians pay a minimum fixed rate for a non-existent service.

If the BWA cannot supply the householders of so many parishes of Barbados with running water, it should not be issuing water service bills. Indeed, I would encourage the homeowners in these areas to begin considering the business opportunities that could arise out of their needs. Perhaps forming cooperatives to import water and resell it is possible.

If we are to believe the reported drought is the cause of our water woes, we would have to accept that the problem will become more pervasive across the island.

That there are no plans of what we will do being articulated by our leadership is unacceptable. We have gone through droughts before in my lifetime, but there were public service announcements and restrictions placed on water use.

This time around it seems as if we have just resolved that those who can get water will, and those who cannot will just have to suck it up.

There are schools in all the communities affected. I wonder how the water situation and the loss of days will be compensated for. The water situation in Barbados is as urgent as the complaints about the National Insurance Scheme and the non-payment of benefits.  We all seem comfortable in allowing the social fabric which undergirds Barbados to come loose from many fundamental hems.

Community water tanks are not the solution to the problems. Barbados has been developed too far beyond this point to ask the citizenry to simply readjust to a backward process.

Why aren’t we trying to add more water tankers to the fleet first? How long will the mains-laying project last and how much longer until we see gains?

Are you comfortable with where Barbados is today?

(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies. Email mhindslayne@gmail.com)

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