New D&I Act Editorial
Stabroek News
June 21, 2004

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The Drainage and Irrigation Act 2004 which was approved by the National Assembly recently will have far-reaching effects and if it functions the way it is intended to it could greatly improve management of water for agricultural purposes.

It repeals the previous Drainage and Irrigation Act and envisages the creation of a semi-autonomous National Drainage and Irrigation Authority (ND&IA) to oversee the Act. The objectives of the new Act are to frame a structure for conserving and distributing water for agricultural purposes, establishing the Authority as the over-arching body with responsibility for the maintenance, operation and control of the drainage and irrigation (D&I) infrastructure to enhance agricultural production and to ensure that the existing system and any new expansions are pursued and operated in a sustainable manner.

Additionally, the Act will make provision for cost recovery for the management of the primary and secondary elements of the D&I system. A delineation will be done of what is private versus public interest with the result that the operation of the private elements are paid for by the direct users of the services while the public elements will be supported by public revenue. Further, the Act will innovatively provide for the participation of water users' associations and farmers' associations in the operation, maintenance, planning, design and management of the D&I infrastructure. Already water users associations (WUA) are embarking on their tasks and it will be interesting to see how they and the farmers grasp this opportunity to take charge of their own needs as should be the case. An agreement has since been signed between the government and six WUAs. Interestingly, the Act also caters for the involvement of the private sector in construction, management and other aspects of the system.

The composition of the ND&IA as enshrined in the Act does provide some cause for concern. One expects that the Authority would be peopled in the main by persons highly knowledgeable in hydrology, engineering, farming, flood control etc. Six directors are to be nominated by the "regions". It is unclear how 10 administrative regions would carve up these directors even though the agricultural emphasis is greater in some regions than others. Nevertheless, each region should have equal representation on the board as D&I is crucial countrywide. A further two directors are to come from the water users' associations, two from the Rice Producers' Association (RPA), one nominated by the Minister of Agriculture and there shall also be ex-officio directors from the line ministries, Lands and Surveys and Guysuco. Considering the important tasks that the directors will have to undertake and the policy they will be setting one wants to be assured of the expertise they will bring to bear.

There appears also to be excessive ministerial power - as has been the case generally in other legislation - in the approval of the ND&IA board. One could easily end up with yes men and women in this group considering that the chairperson is to be appointed by the minister, the six regional directors have to be approved by the minister, two directors are to come from the RPA which is closely allied to the government and another director is to be nominated by the minister. This problem of ministerial power is also compounded by Section 50 of the Act which gives the minister the power to vary or approve rates assessed by the Authority.

The Authority will be run by a Chief Executive Officer and one presumes that this position will be widely advertised to ensure that the best possible candidate is chosen.

The Act entrusts the Authority with overriding power on D&I infrastructure and requires that all sea defence and river defence work be executed in consultation and collaboration with it.

Crucially, one of the tasks of the Authority is to determine where new D&I works are necessary. Once this is agreed, the Authority will draw up a plan together with an estimate and these documents have to be available for members of the public to inspect and to also permit the lodging of objections to it. Once this process is completed, the documents outlining the proposed work then have to be submitted to the minister for approval. Once it begins functioning, presumably the Authority will have to tackle the age-old problem of poor D&I infrastructure in the Mahaica Creek area and similar areas. Farmers in the Mahaica Creek this week lamented the enormous flooding problems they have experienced in recent years and expressed anguish that there seems to be no plan to help them out.

The ministerial imprint also surfaces in relation to emergency works if there is imminent danger of flooding. Once there is imminent danger of flooding a report has to be submitted to the minister who could then direct the Authority to undertake such work as is necessary to avert a flood. One would have thought that the Authority in cases of emergency would be the sole arbiter of what needed to be done and would act expeditiously without having to seek recourse to the minister.

In line with the sweeping powers established in the Act, the Authority can acquire D&I infrastructure not constructed and maintained by it with the relevant compensation being paid to the owner. The Authority will also have the remit to alter or remove any bridge, culvert, koker, sluice and aqueduct as it sees fit to enhance its work.

A key component of the funds available to the Authority will be the sums collected from users of its services as rates and charges, payments from maintaining, repairing or replacing works, charges for services provided for private elements etc. All charges payable will be paid in two instalments in February and July. It will be interesting to see how the Authority fares with rates collection as organs across the country continue to have great difficulty with this.

Before the end of each financial year, the Authority will be required to submit an annual budget to the minister and there shall be consultation on this after which the approved document will be tendered to the Ministry of Finance.

The Authority will also be required to prepare three-year roll-over plans. There are also detailed requirements for auditing of the Authority's accounts and for the submission of annual reports.

Interestingly, provision is made for the declaration of conflicts of interest by the directorate or any officer or employee of the Authority. Some of the financial penalties for infractions seem slight ranging from $2,000 upwards.

Given the wide powers entrusted to the Authority and envisaged participation by farmers and other water users in the management and operation of the D&I infrastructure this Act could have very positive results on the agricultural sector.