Friday, December 15, 2017

Watergate, Trini style

 Under the last administration of Patrick Manning a number of committees were established which acted as fora for discussion, evaluation, analysis and decision-making. These committees comprised ministers and technocrats from the relevant ministries and agencies and were supported by a technical secretariat which facilitated the underlying processes and documented the proceedings in great detail. Decisions made by these committees were then submitted to Cabinet for its consideration and authorisation. The Ministry of Finance and the Attorney General’s office were represented on every committee to provide technical support in finance and law as required. It is largely for this reason that threats from various ministers in the current administration about corruption and poor decision-making have been nothing but empty rhetoric. 

These standing committees included but were not limited to the following: the Standing Committee on Energy, the Purchase of Military Assets, Water Resources, Caroni Limited, the Health Initiatives, the Construction Initiatives and Food Prices to name a few. The Standing Committee on Energy was chaired by Mr Manning and the majority of the other committees were chaired by Dr Lenny Saith. 

The real benefit of these committees was that they brought together multidisciplinary teams from various ministries as well as subject matter experts. Deliberations, documentation and reports were shared amongst all. Subject matter experts, technical personnel, not ministers, reported on progress and the evaluation of various alternative approaches to any issue or problem. The benefit of this methodology is that it provided transparency and, more importantly, allowed for a full evaluation of the technical details and the various constraints. 

As minister in the Ministry of Finance, I was on many, but not all of the committees. Because of my finance background and business experience, I have been able to comment on many matters now in the public domain with some degree of authority, especially since I have been able to save my notes. 

Water is as critical to everyday life as it is to economic growth. The Committee on Water Resources therefore examined many options for improving the supply of water both for home and industrial use on a 24/7 basis. It considered several initiatives including using several small desalination plants for water-deprived regions, the provision of a dam in the Moruga and Chickland areas and the development of a wastewater plant which would recycle water for industrial purposes.

As a rule of thumb, producing water is cheapest using wells and capturing rainwater run-off. Desalinated water by comparison is very expensive and recycled wastewater even more expensive than desalinated water. Using wastewater has an additional cost in that wastewater cannot be commingled with potable water. This therefore requires the additional capital expense of separate piping and instrumentation. Having evaluated the possibility of using recycled wastewater from the wastewater plant, WASA technicians advised the committee to consider alternatives including increasing water production from existing supply sources.

In that regard, it is well known that the State had an ongoing legal action against Desalcott which was a joint venture between GE and companies controlled by the Karamath family. Desalcott was developed under a public private partnership (PPP) rubric during the administration of Basdeo Panday in an arrangement that was considered to be neither transparent nor arm’s length.

The committee noted that Desalcott had a rated capacity of 24 million gallons a day and had the capacity to increase its output to 60 million gallons. If Desalcott accepted the responsibility to provide additional water on the same contractual basis as water was being provided to WASA under the existing take-or-pay basis, then the country would have an additional 36 million gallons of water a day at its disposal. The State, therefore, would avoid any additional capital costs and obtain water from a cheaper source than more expensive wastewater. 

In these circumstances, the committee sought legal advice on whether the State could proceed with its suit against Desalcott while requesting an increase in production under the pre-existing contractual conditions. The advice of the Attorney General’s office was positive. Accordingly, WASA commenced negotiations and Desalcott agreed to increase its output to 60 million gallons a day, in discrete stages, without altering the other terms and conditions of the existing contract. I am informed that Desalcott has increased its production to 30 million gallons a day and is continuing the upgrade process. This leaves an unutilised upgrade capacity of an additional 30 million gallons a day. Adding 10 million gallons a day of wastewater is, quite simply, unnecessary. So why do it?

Minister Ganga Singh has had a long association with water in this UNC administration and in his previous UNC incarnation. He is unique in this regard. Starting as CEO of WASA in 2010 and then elevated to a ministry which was created to deal primarily with water, he cannot claim ignorance.   Did the Minister of Water Resources cancel the additional capacity utilisation agreement? And if yes, why?  This might seem an elementary question, but from everything I’ve seen and read it is a question that has neither been asked nor answered. 

Using recycled water from the Beetham Wastewater Treatment Plant is therefore totally unnecessary. Water can be obtained from other sources more cheaply under existing contractual arrangements with Desalcott. When the proposed Beetham Wastewater project is evaluated in this light, the questions asked about the propriety of the connections and the tender process methodology for the award of this project have new meaning. 

• Mariano Browne is a 

management consultant and a 

former government minister