House of Assembly tackles water woes with new bill

The content originally appeared on: The BVI Beacon

The House of Assembly is currently debating a bill that would create a new statutory body for water and sewerage, and most legislators expressed overwhelming support for the plan before going into a closed-door committee session on Tuesday afternoon.

The Water and Sewerage Department is currently spending about $22 million a year to subsidise water operations, with residents only paying about $5 million of the overall $27 million cost.

Government hopes to help remedy the situation by creating a new statutory body, but details of that move still need to be hashed out, leaders said Tuesday. The Water and Sewerage Authority Act, 2021, which was introduced by Deputy Premier Kye Rymer, came for a seconand third reading during Tues- day’s HOA sitting.

Mr. Rymer, who is also the minister of communications and works, said the proposed legislation is “transformative” and would be the “impetus for some major changes that will dramatically improve the management for the delivery of potable water to residents.”

The minister described the plan to make the Water and Sewerage Department into a statutory board as a move that residents “need and deserve.”

Questions

But Opposition Leader Julian Fraser warned that the proposed legislation would result in increased water prices for consumers, and Health and Social Development Minister Marlon Penn said the authority would cost the territory $40 million per year or more. Both members found issues with a lack of a “plan” in the bill itself and urged their colleagues to consider the importance of a clear policy position.

“I don’t want to see this board formed and everyone expects a miracle from this board,” Mr. Fraser (R-D3) said. “I don’t want to see the board formed and they walk into the Water and Sewerage Department and get buried in the culture.”

He argued that the bill does- n’t provide a “map” for how the board will proceed with its tasks, and added that more details are needed.

“I am convinced that with proper leadership and using the existing model that we have, there is hope that an authority for water and sewerage can turn things around,” he said. “All we need is a minister who is committed and understands what the problems are.”

Mr. Penn, however, said that it’s important to “fix the problems that we face” by trying something different.

“We need to give this shift an opportunity,” he added.

The minister also noted that many concerns surrounding the water system in the territory already had been voiced in the House.

“We have to ensure that there’s a clear policy position on the way forward for this authority, and I think the committee stages of this bill are going to be critical for us,” he said. “There are some very specific and deliberate things that we need to do as a House to ensure this authority functions the way it’s supposed to function.”

High costs

Mr. Penn (R-D8) added that the territory has a distribution problem and needs to commit to infrastructural in- vestments. He also stressed the importance of accountability, transparency and value for money in establishing the board, and called for a strategic plan with a phased approach to fixing distribution issues.

“If we’re going to move, let’s move properly,” he said. “There’s too much money at stake. And not just the money: [Water] is a human right.”

Government backbencher Mark Vanterpool (R-D4) said the bill may not be “perfect” but with “more experience” the government will be able to make amendments in the future.

Junior Minister for Trade and Economic Development Shereen Flax-Charles said she supports the bill, noting that the system needs improvements.

During the sitting, she shared messages that she’s received from residents who are “sick and tired” of the problems that have plagued the territory for decades.

“We have to fix this problem,” Ms. Flax-Charles said. “We have to try something different. We can’t continue to say that we’re one of the top destinations for tourism in the Caribbean and the locals, the residents, can’t get water and the tourists can’t get water.”

‘A significant step’

Government backbencher Vincent Wheatley (R-D9) also expressed his support for the bill, stating that water problems should have been fixed a “long time ago” and that making WSD a statutory body is a “significant step toward addressing” the issue.

Similarly, opposition member Carvin Malone (R-at large) said he supports the “brilliant initiative” by Mr. Rymer, who has also worked on efforts like adjusting the traffic flow in Road Town.

“This is a minister that gets things done,” Mr. Malone said of Mr. Rymer.

Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley agreed with Mr. Malone’s statement and said that establishing the authority is “another opportunity for [Mr. Rymer] to drive progress forward.”