Water, sewerage authority in works

The content originally appeared on: The BVI Beacon

Legislators gave the green light last week to create a new statutory body to oversee water and sewerage, claiming the move will help rectify longstanding infrastructure problems that have plagued residents for decades.

After debating how the move could potentially affect water costs in the territory, members of the House of Assembly passed the Water and Sewerage Authority Act, 2022 with amendments the evening of Aug. 11.

The amended version, which now awaits assent from Governor John Rankin, has not yet been made public.

Leaking money

Deputy Premier Kye Rymer, who is the minister of communications and works, introduced the bill, which came for a second and third reading on Aug. 9.

Legislators noted during debate — which was largely supportive of the proposed law — that the territory is struggling with water-and-sewerage issues that urgently need to be rectified.

In recent years, the Water and Sewerage Department — which is now part of central government — has spent about $22 million annually to subsidise water operations, with customers paying only about $5 million of the overall $27 million cost.

Mr. Rymer previously told the House in April 2021 that the biggest challenge with providing potable water is not production, but storage capabilities and distribution networks. He added that the existing infrastructure is aged and dilapidated, with frequent leaks and waterline breakages.

During the Aug. 9 debate, Mr. Rymer said he hopes the new bill will help address such issues and prompt dramatic improvements in water delivery.

However, HOA members including Opposition Leader Julian Fraser expressed concerns about the initial bill’s lack of detail on how the agency would operate.

“I don’t want to see this board formed and everyone expects a miracle from this board,” Mr. Fraser (R-D3) said during the debate.

He argued that the bill doesn’t provide a “map” for how the board will proceed with its tasks, and added that more details were 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.”

‘An opportunity’

Health and Social Development Minister Marlon 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.”

Mr. Penn (R-D8) 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) — a former minister of communications and works — 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 (R-at large) 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.”