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Counting our water blessings

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Water has many characteristics which help to make it unique. One of them is that it flows. Rivers, which are but water in flow, can pass through several countries and this can lead to strife. In fact it has even been forecast that the next major conflict in the world could derive from disputes over access to water. Fortunately in a single State island like St. Vincent the rivers have nowhere else to go but to the sea. The sharing of water rights with neighbouring states therefore does not arise in our case.

The flowing of water in our mountainous little country is however beneficial. One of the biggest costs in obtaining potable water is transportation. Because nearly all our water is transported by gravity without any heavy reliance on electrical pumps transportation costs have been kept to a minimum.{{more}}

To store, convey and distribute water requires elaborate infrastructure. Once it has been established it can be expanded and improved. It makes no sense however, to duplicate it. The supplying of water therefore tends to be a natural monopoly. When Thatcherism in Britain released the privatization devil on the world, many people, including the international financial institutions thought that water systems ought to be privatized and international firms invited to participate in the ownership and management of water businesses. This had to be sheer madness. Why should foreign interests invest in water except to make profits? At the same time governments have the responsibility to provide even the poorest of its citizens with one of the essentials of life, water. Many governments in developing countries who ill advisedly went down the privatization path have now had to revert to State control. Fortunately we in St. Vincent never subscribed to this heresy. Water has remained under the control of the Government. What we try to do is to ensure that everybody has access to clean water yet at the same time the system does not have to be subsidized by the state. And so far we have not been doing that badly!

In the developing countries as a whole one in five people lacks access to a reliable water supply. In St. Vincent the corresponding figure is one in fifty. In some countries poor people have to pay far more for water than rich people. This is because in the poor areas there is no government distribution system. What happens is that private individuals truck water into the poor areas and sell it. In St. Vincent we rarely, if ever, do this. We have not come this far easily.

On the mainland the massive Windward water supply project is just about complete. There are several points to be made about it. 23,000 people, just under a quarter of the total population, will be affected. It will cost $23 million and is 80% financed by loan from the French. Obviously this loan will have to be serviced. For the CWSA to do this and still break even will inevitably necessitate an increase in water rates. Fortunately, even if there were a moderate increase in water rates, St. Vincent would still have the second lowest charges for water in the Eastern Caribbean.

W.G. Baptiste

In concluding this article I want to pay tribute to my old school master and friend, W.G. Baptiste. Winston Baptiste joined the staff of the Grammar School the year before I entered it as a pupil. We were both there until he went off to university a year or two before I did.

Bats taught my entrance form mathematics. On the way to his classes he would walk slowly down the corridor of the Old Grammar School tossing a stick of chalk from hand to hand. That is how I prefer to remember him. Schoolboys very quickly size up their teachers. Mr. Baptiste exuded an aura of quiet authority. No one fooled in his class.

He taught me Geography and Biology in various forms. Indeed when I was sitting the ‘O’ level exam in Biology he stood over me and said ‘Martin, you can do better than that. Use a more elegant phrase to describe the specimen’. I still let him down by getting a mere pass in the subject. It was not the only occasion on which I was to let him down. He thought I had some leadership ability and, as Games Master, he established a second eleven in cricket and made me captain. However after a few matches he had to relieve me of the captaincy. I was not up to it.

Later in life I strove not to let him down again. After we left university he returned to Grammar School but I joined the Civil Service. We remained in contact. He would phone me from time to time, usually to sort out some problem he was having with the bureaucracy. On two occasions however it was about personal matters; once when he wanted to study Plant Pathology and again when he wished to be transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture. I believe he attained both of his objectives.

When he changed his lifestyle, like almost all those who knew him, I looked on, not in anger but in deep sorrow. It was not for me to be judgmental; suffice it to say, as we do on these occasions, ‘he did it his way’.