The Sustainable Management of Tobago's Water Resources
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The Sustainable Management of Tobago's Water Resources

When the wells dry, we know the worth of water.Benjamin Franklin

"Water for all by 2000."

The goal of providing a 100% reliable supply of water to the population is one that successive political administrations of Trinidad and Tobago have been seeking to achieve over the last decade. Having endorsed the World Health Organisation's policy of "Health for all by 2000", the state is duty bound to provide an adequate, reliable and potable water supply to the population. The availability of potable water is a critical element of primary health care. The state also has to meet the responsibility of ensuring the proper treatment and disposal of wastewater. The Water and Sewerage Authority is the Government's main agent in the drive to provide water for all of Tobago for 2000.

Water supply/demand

In 1991 WASA estimated that the water demand for Tobago was 26,000 cu/m/d/ (cubic metres per day) with a supply of 22,000 cu/m/d. This meant a deficit of 15%. The Authority also projected that water demand by 2000 would be 39,000 cu/m/d. This projection was based on estimates of population growth and tourism development. Since that time we have seen that tourism development has taken place at rates higher than predicted by WASA. This means that the water demand in 2000 is significantly greater than projected in1991.

Meeting the demand

In 1991 WASA identified three major projects for increasing water supply in Tobago. These were the expansion of the Courland Waterworks to meet the then 15% deficit and the development of the Richmond Water Supply Project. The Richmond Project was identified as "the only feasible and practical project" for meeting the projected water demand during the period 1995-2005. By 1994, it was recognised that serious degradation of the Courland Catchment was compromising the capacity of the expanded Courland Waterworks. Consequently, a watershed protection was designed for the Courland Catchment with recommendations for a number of measures to be taken. Most of these measures have not been implemented. The state is only now seeking to acquire land for the protection of the Courland Watershed. During the period from 1994 to 1999 a number of other projects were implemented including wells at Bloody Bay and improvements to the Craighall intake and Green hill. These projects have provided moderate increases in supply. The Richmond Project has not been implemented.

The period of 1999-2000 has seen a flurry of activity on the part of WASA to meet the water demands in Tobago and achieve the Government's goal of water for all by 2000. The THA has also applied some pressure with the Chief Secretary threatening to prevent the opening of the new Hilton Hotel if additional supplies of water for south west Tobago were not provided. There were also public protests by the villagers of Charlotteville. Improvement works are underway at all major waterworks and a number of deep wells have been drilled around the island in an attempt to exploit ground water resources.

Sustainability of ground water extraction

As Tobago increases its dependence on ground water supplies there are several critical issues that must be addressed. The first is that of water quality. What exactly is the quality of water that is being extracted from these deep wells and being supplied to consumers? We have been assured that the water is safe however the chemical analyses of the water from the various wells have not been made public. It is known that groundwater can contain naturally occurring chemicals that may be hazardous to humans at certain concentrations. Examples of these substances include iron, arsenic and nitrate. There are also manmade substances such as pesticides that can contaminate ground water. What are the levels of these substances in the water from these deep wells?

The second issue is that of saltwater intrusion. The movement of salt water into fresh water aquifers is a serious and growing problem in many coastal areas of the world where increasing amounts of ground water are extracted. Small amounts of salt-water can make fresh water reserves unsafe for drinking. What is the potential for salt-water intrusion as a result of the increased extraction of ground water in coastal areas of Tobago? Is this situation being monitored?

The third and probably the most important issue in the relationship between rates of ground water extraction and recharge. Is the water being extracted faster than it is being replaced by rainfall? If this is happening then ground water levels will fall. Natural springs may dry up and the risk of salt-water intrusion increases. These are questions that must be answered.

Waste Water management

One of the most important principles for the management of water resources is that of "water in water out". What this simply means is that more than 90% of the potable water supplied to households and industries is returned to the environment as wastewater that has the potential for the contamination of surface water and ground water supplies. It is therefore reasonable to believe that any strategy to increase the supply of potable water must be accompanied by a strategy to increase and improve wastewater treatment. This apparently has been forgotten in the drive to achieve water for all by 2000. Tobago already faces a serious problem of sewage pollution. This problem will increase as water supplies are increased in the absence of programmes to improve wastewater management.

Water conservation

Three basic measures can be employed in seeking to conserve fresh water supplies in Tobago. The first measure is to prevent or reduce pollution of fresh water sources. Many streams that were used in the past to supply water to communities are now unusable because of pollution. The cost of water treatment also increases with pollution The second measure is to avoid wastage. While there are many households that receive water only once or twice per week there are others where overflowing tanks and leaking taps are the order of the day. WASA has not maintained a sustained effort to reduce water wastage. It is only during periods of drought that this is given some attention. The solution to the wastage of water by households and industries is universal metering. The present situation of household water bills being based on the value of one's house is flawed. This means that if your house is larger than my house then your water bill will be higher even if my household has twice as many occupants as yours and therefore uses twice as much water. Households must be accountable for the amount of water used. It is also unfair that households receiving water once or twice per week should pay the same rates as those with uninterrupted supplies. The third measure that can be applied in conserving water is the recycling of wastewater particularly by industries. This applies particularly to the hotel sector, which produces large volumes of wastewater on a daily basis. With adequate treatment, wastewater can be used for irrigation or for flushing toilets etc.

Public participation in water management

In 1997, a team of consultants was hired by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to develop a Water Management Strategy for the country. This writer was interviewed by the consultants on several occasions and participated in at least two meetings. What I observed at the time was that no serious efforts were made to involve communities in the development of this strategy. The study should have been completed since 1998 however I have not seen or heard of any public reference to this water resources strategy from then till now. Is this a secret strategy?

In 1999 the villagers of Charlotteville were forced to protest when decisions were being made about their water supply without prior consultation. The World Health Organisation has developed guidelines for public participation in the operation and maintenance of water supplies. The experience from around the world is that public participation fosters a sense of responsibility and ownership that is critical for effective water resources management. It is necessary that we move from a situation of thinking that it is WASA's water to an understanding that all of us have the responsibility for the management of this resource. Our lives depend on this. - Kamau Akili - President - Environment TOBAGO - October 23, 2000
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