Water challenges in an island nation: An interview with Indar Maharaj

Trinidad and Tobago water challenges
Trinidad and Tobago may be an idyllic getaway in the Caribbean, but its geographic location and limited resources pose issues for its local water and energy supply. Image: Shutterstock

This feature news is part of Singapore International Water Week’s (SIWW) series of one-on-one interviews with global water industry leaders, Conversations with Water Leaders. In this edition, Indar Maharaj, chairman, Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) and president, National Gas Company (NGC), shares with OOSKAnews correspondent, Renee Martin-Nagle, the water issues of Trinidad and Tobago* as an island nation with limited resources, WASA’s financial challenges, inefficiencies in the local water sector and more.

Indar Maharaj also spoke about Trinidad and Tobago’s desalinated water for industrial use, and the need for more wastewater treatment infrastructure to protect Tobago’s ecological environment.

Thank you for taking time to speak with me. In Trinidad you have two positions – chairman of the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) and president of the National Gas Company (NGC). Are there synergies in having these two positions?

In Trinidad and Tobago there is a clear connection between water and energy. Trinidad is becoming a resource economy, and, if NGC shuts down, then a huge portion of the country also shuts down. So it is important to have water not only for domestic users, but also for customers of the gas company.

How does being government-owned affect WASA financially?

The regulatory commission dictates the price of water, which is always less than the operating costs. With low prices and high operating costs, WASA has never been able to be self-sufficient financially. So, at the beginning of the year, WASA goes to the government and asks for money based on projections. The government then gives us what it can afford. When you’re in that situation, trying to develop a five-year plan becomes a challenge.

The government contribution for operating expenses doesn’t address capex or expansion of the system. That’s the challenge of WASA – how do we address the low revenues and high operating expenses, and at the same time put new capital into the business to make it efficient and modernize it?

Are there plans to bring in private investors?

Private investment would let us grow the authority and secure water supply. If we are going to attract private sector participation in WASA, we have to enhance revenue, trim costs and improve efficiency. The whole water sector is grossly underdeveloped, and we’ve had no expansion in the last decade or decade and a half. I can’t say that private investment is where we are going, but we want to improve the authority’s financial operation to be ready.

In order to provide a return on investment, you will probably have to increase tariffs.

The problem is that it is very difficult to increase tariffs if we are not operationally or financially efficient. It’s a real conundrum for us. As we improve our operational effectiveness and efficiency, there will be small adjustments in tariff.

Do you have any public-private partnerships or PPPs at this point?

We have a desal plant that produces around 30 million gallons per day via reverse osmosis. This desal operation could be viewed as a PPP, in the sense that it’s owned privately by Desalcott – Desalination Company of Trinidad and Tobago — and WASA is the only customer. Originally, the plant was a joint venture between Ionics and a local entrepreneur. GE bought out Ionics, and recently the local company purchased the GE shares from GE, so now the desal plant is totally a locally-owned, private investment.

As population density increases, septic tanks could become a threat to the environment and also to our water supplies. So far it hasn’t been a problem, but, if we don’t start putting the infrastructure in place to collect and treat this waste, we will be in an extremely tenuous situation

Why did you have a need for a desal plant?

In the wet season, we have a lot of fresh water coming from natural rainfall, but some dry seasons have no rainfall for months. Therein lies the challenge – how do we make water from the wet season available in the dry season? We have some dams and reservoirs that store huge volumes of water. About 60 to 70 per cent of our water supply comes from those facilities, but they can’t take us fully through a dry season. In that situation, our industrial sector would be in a very insecure position with respect to water. That’s where the idea of a desalination plant came from. The desalinated water is really expensive compared to ground sources, so the desal water was intended for the industrial sector that is willing to pay a premium for a secure water source. With time, the plant has slowly increased its capacity, and, as extra water became available, we put it into the domestic system.

What are the inefficiencies in the water sector?

One of them is non-revenue water. We are replacing the major high-volume transmission lines that, in some cases, have been there for 50 to 60 years. Once that is done, I think we will see a significant reduction in unaccounted-for water. Be aware though that a lot of the unaccounted-for water has less to do with leakage and more to do with unaccounted-for consumption. A lot of people have diverted water, for example, for agricultural use. That’s something we have to handle very sensitively, because the agriculture sector has to make a living and also helps provide food for the island.

Another is old structure and staffing. Our ratio of employees per thousand customers is high compared to many other parts of the world. We also need to start taking action against people who are not paying their water bills. People spend far more money on their personal telephone calls than they do on water. But WASA is a state-owned company, and we need to be conscious of the government’s relationship with its population.

How do you manage the use of groundwater sustainably?

I must say that the water authority has managed its water resources very prudently. They are very careful about over-producing the wells and about replenishing. In fact, they take wells out of service to allow the aquifer to recharge. The rainy season helps us, as well as the actual geology of the island that has blessed us with significant volumes of groundwater. Even so, the temptation to overproduce from groundwater is always there.

With desal, reservoirs and groundwater, do you feel you have an adequate supply for the future?

The island is continuing to grow industrially. Therefore the demand for water will continue to increase, so we will have to look at other sources. In addition, there’s a huge proportion of the population with no piped supply or only a limited supply, so we have to continue to try to serve them.

What is your plan to increase domestic supply?

We started off with a 24/2 plan, where anyone not getting water for 24 hours at least 2 days a week would be brought up to that level. Essentially, we achieved that sometime last year. We are now looking at going to five days a week, and of course then to seven days per week. At the same time we are not reducing the number of people who are getting water 24/7 or 24/6. It’s not economically viable to get water to some of the remote locations with only a few people. They and we have to look at other means of securing a water supply, such as trucks, aquifers, streams and wells.

How do you manage wastewater treatment?

There are only two parts of the island that have wastewater treatment facilities — small treatment plants targeting several real estate developments with 100 families or less. The rest of the island depends on septic tanks. As population density increases, septic tanks could become a threat to the environment and also to our water supplies. So far it hasn’t been a problem, but, if we don’t start putting the infrastructure in place to collect and treat this waste, we will be in an extremely tenuous situation. Tobago’s ecology is very sensitive, and we are working on a program there.

What are the unique issues you face as an island nation?

As an island nation, financial and other resources can be limited. Second, in an island with an energy-based economy, you are always competing with the energy sector for people; energy pays better so they always get the best. The third thing is technology. We need to be able to switch from older technologies to newer ones before we get into a bottomless pit of inefficiencies. Local content is always an issue. Ideally it would be nice if the money we spend on these projects could remain in the island. However, we don’t manufacture steel pipes, valves or pumps. What we have available are labor and energy. Other than that, almost everything has to be imported.

In your three years as chair of WASA, are there things that have surprised you?

Well, I will say that I was taken aback by the condition of the business and the systems. Some were very good but some were not what you would expect in a contemporary organization. Also, the customer focus was not there, so that was also a challenge. Another very unpleasant surprise was WASA’s huge asset base – the reservoirs, the piping systems, the pumps and so on, a lot of which are underground and must be maintained and upgraded. In addition, we had people who had worked at WASA for 25 to 30 years, so they were not aware of other ways of doing business and operations.

Where do you look for ideas?

We look in the private sector and in the energy sector, both here and abroad. Whether it’s a petrochemical plant or a water treatment plant, some principles are universal and can be applied to transmission issues.

Indar Maharaj, Water and Sewerage Authority chairman and National Gas Company president

We have also been talking to international water organizations, like PUB. I was in Singapore in September 2011 for the Singapore International Water Week because I was told so much about them. When we got there, we were very impressed with what we saw. That’s how we ended up engaging PUB to assist us. It’s a small island, they are water-deficient, and they use their water efficiently and effectively.

There is also the Uganda water authority, which has a lot of cultural similarities to Trinidad. At one time WASA brought in an English company, but what works there may not necessarily work in Trinidad because of cultural differences.

What about recycling water?

The largest plant in Trinidad will take 10 to 12 million gallons per day of recovered, recycled water. We are considering using that water in the industrial sector. For cultural reasons, it’s difficult to explain to people that we are putting it into the domestic water system. But for the industrial plants, the desal water will be displaced by recycled water and will then go to the domestic system.

How do you address demand?

We use the media, and we educate through the schools. For example, we have a WASA school competition where students in secondary schools participate in a televised competition based on water. The competition generates a huge amount of excitement. Right now we’re targeting secondary schools – children between 15 and 17 – and we are hoping to roll out another program next year that will target children in elementary schools between 7 and 11.

What final message do you have for our readers?

In a society like ours where water is not easily available, we need to appreciate that we have to control demand. If we do not address the demand side of the business, I think we will never be able to solve the problems.

*Trinidad and Tobago is an island in the Caribbean, near Central and South America. This post originally appeared here.

Did you find this article useful? Join the EB Circle!

Your support helps keep our journalism independent and our content free for everyone to read. Join our community here.

Most popular

Featured Events

Publish your event
leaf background pattern

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability Join the Ecosystem →