Water Editorial
Stabroek News
April 2, 2007

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Thus far the matches at the Providence Stadium have been played without a hitch though yesterday's higher turnout would have provided a sterner test. Outside of the stadium the major problem is water supply. A week ago in these columns we urged that the authorities pay careful attention to the utility services to avoid embarrassments such as dry taps and unexpected power outages.

Unfortunately there has been a major problem with water; one of those unexpected complications which after the tournament the authorities will have to address comprehensively. The problem flowed from maintenance work on the East Demerara Water Conservancy (EDWC) which feeds into the Lamaha Canal - a major source of water for the city. The EDWC work resulted in large amounts of sediment getting into the Lamaha Canal rendering the water unsafe for consumption. Efforts are ongoing to flush the sediment out of the canal so that the Guyana Water Inc (GWI) can restore normal supply. Already GWI and the EDWC are at odds over who exactly wanted the maintenance work done at this time and a fuller explanation is needed. It is impossible for the authorities to anticipate every single hitch e.g. the ash that rained on Providence during the match last Wednesday from a burning cane field, but the jeopardizing of water supply to the city is a major mistake.

No city holding itself out as a promising tourist destination can afford to present itself amid a water crisis. It can survive without traffic lights, road markings and fountains but not water. It is something that the Tourism Ministry should take cognizance of particularly for scheduled events.

Fortunately, many of the visitors here for cricket world cup will be spared the severe inconvenience as they are staying at establishments which may have large water reservoirs and purification systems.

Householders, businesses and health facilities have not been that lucky. There has been severe inconvenience and frustration. What the current crisis should do is focus the attention of the authorities on the fragility of the water supply to the city. There are two issues that should be addressed. The first is the intrinsic connection between the Lamaha Canal and the EDWC. Until recently there was very little interest in, and knowledge of, the connection. The Great Flood of 2005 and the lesser one in the following year changed all of that.

Because the swollen EDWC was thought to have been the progenitor of the deep floods along the coast in 2005 it attracted surveys and investigations which revealed that significant parts are vulnerable to collapse should the water in the huge conservancy rise above a certain level. Were the conservancy to collapse the East Coast and other parts could face catastrophic flooding and severe loss to the economy. It was this acute sensitivity in 2006 that caused the authorities to release large amounts of water from the EDWC into the Mahaica Creek thereby inducing severe flooding in the Mahaica and Mahaicony areas.

It was also this acute sensitivity which prompted the authorities to keep the level of the EDWC at a manageable level in recent months to avoid a recurrence of the 05 and 06 flooding. The EDWC is now functioning as an important drainage tool but one that is very tricky to manage. The rains this year were less than last year and there is a risk that too little water will remain in the EDWC for essential needs from the second-guessing of weather patterns. The dredging which eventually fouled the Lamaha Canal may have been deemed essential in the context of the closer monitoring of the EDWC but it has unfortunately created a huge problem in the city. The solution to the quandary the EDWC poses is not yo-yo management of water levels but rather a comprehensive plan to either decommission it or undertake massive rehabilitation work, as has been recommended, so that it could store water safely without posing the threat of collapse.

The second issue which the authorities should address their minds to is alternate sources of potable water for the city, i.e. more ground water wells.

There are two ancillary issues. Despite the fact that Guyana is hosting a world-class event there appears to have been no contingency plan for exactly this type of water problem. The only answer that GWI can provide is to allow water to flow for use in toilets, washing, etc, but with the express warning that the water must not be ingested or used for cooking even if boiled. It is a dangerous dilemma as in a water starved city it is unlikely that people would heed this warning. The country has thus far not heard anything from the government about contingency planning in this area. Should large reservoirs be constructed for this purpose?

In addition, it will be noted that GWI is in management transition - the UK manager Severn Tent having had its contract terminated nine months before it was scheduled to end. Clearly there will be adjustment shortcomings and the government must move rapidly to fill the gaps by hiring experienced top management who haven't had questions previously raised about their capabilities in this particular environment. Difficult issues such as the cost to consumers for the production of potable water and the continuing high losses through the network will have to be frontally addressed.