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Political lessons from wastewater

By Michael Harris

Over the past couple of weeks I have made an effort to read and to listen to the various arguments for and against the Government’s proposed Beetham Wastewater Treatment Plant. Those arguments came to a head last Friday in Parliament when Leader of the Opposition, Keith Rowley, moved a private member’s motion calling on the Government to halt the project.
The entire debate thus far has contained more sound and fury than clarity and Dr Rowley’s contribution in Parliament last Friday was no exception. But as I thought about the issues involved it became clear to me that there was, in the substance of the debate, an excellent lesson to be learnt in terms of politics and the difference between policy and process and government and governance.
The point is that in terms of the wastewater plant there are really two issues in the debate which, quite frankly, have not been well separated and clarified by any of the parties to the debate. But we need to be very clear about these two issues and their separate implications.
The first issue is the question of whether the wastewater plant is necessary in terms of the future water resource management in the country or, as a variation of that, whether it is the most cost-effective way to obtain the additional supply of water. This is certainly an important question, particularly given the cost of the project and the various issues and implications attendant on that question deserve to be well ventilated in the public space.
In this regard Dr Rowley in his contribution stated that “WASA, in an internal 2011 report, had placed the original project cost at US$101 million (TT$650 million). However, at that stage, WASA rejected the project as not being economically feasible”.
“This was WASA’s position in 2011,” Dr Rowley said. “But something happened between 2011 and 2012. They handed the project to NGC.” He said NGC then awarded the contract at a price of about US$167 million (TT$1 billion) to the winning firm, understood to be SIS. This price, he said, was about US$67 million higher than the other bidder.”
Moreover at that price Dr Rowley argued: “The project’s cost, per gallon of industrial-purpose water expected to be produced, was almost six times above the price of similar facilities.” He said the country would be paying US$15.18 per gallon, while a similar facility in the US has a cost per gallon of US$2.60.
Former PNM minister Mariano Browne also weighed in on this aspect of the debate. In a Saturday Express article (March 29) he argued that, given an existing agreement for Desalcott (the water desalination company) to increase its daily production to some 60 million gallons per day and given the fact that there is still an unutilised upgrade capacity of an additional 30 million gallons a day from that plant, adding ten million gallons a day of wastewater is, quite simply, unnecessary. He asked: “So why do it?”

On the other side of the debate Minister Anil Roberts, in responding to Dr Rowley’s presentation, argued that the previous PNM administration of which Dr Rowley was a member, had itself in 2007 approved almost $700 million for a similar programme.
These are highly technical issues which need extensive ventilation and discussion if the average citizen is to even begin to properly understand what they are all about and make an informed decision as to which side of the argument he or she ultimately supports.
And here is the first lesson to be learnt. For while such ventilation and discussion is the job of the politicians involved in the debate, it is also the job and the responsibility of the media, not only to report the debate but to analyse the issues, and it is also the job of professional associations with expertise in this area to make a contribution. It is such involvement by different parties which enriches the political debate and, to the extent that they fail so to do, for whatever reason, the political climate is diminished.
But, in the final analysis, it still remains a policy debate and the Government is still legally entitled and authorised to pursue its policies once it bears in mind the possible political consequences.
The second issue with respect to the wastewater plant does not have to do with whether it is necessary or not but with whether the process used to award the contract to build the plant was fair and transparent.
Dr Rowley in his presentation in Parliament, as far as the fairness and transparency of the process was concerned, had this to say: “In the case of the current award, sufficient public information exists that establishes a relationship between the NGC chairman and SIS to raise concerns of impropriety in the award of the contract.” And he went on to indicate that the Integrity Commission should investigate the award of the contract.
This second issue is not about a particular policy or a particular project. This issue is about governance. And given the notable failure of the present administration to introduce meaningful and effective procurement legislation, any suggestion of impropriety involved in the award of the contract, particularly given the large sum involved, should certainly be a cause for concern.

But the absence of proper and effective procurement process should be a cause of concern for every government project regardless of the size of the award. And herein lies the critical and material difference. At the level of policy a government may be right about a project or it may be wrong or it may be half right and half wrong. But still, only about that singular project.
But where the process of selection is opaque or flawed in any other way then every policy and every project becomes tainted and illegitimate. And a cloud of doubt and suspicion comes to envelop the entire governmental process. That is the difference between a project and a process and between government and governance.
• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean.
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