A pattern of low-intensity, non-violent, issue-centred, community-based but boisterous protests has sprung up in certain coastal villages. Frustrated with official mismanagement and neglect by para-statal utilities, residents have discovered that the most effective way to grab the executive’s attention is by blocking the country’s few main public roads. This usually has the effects of paralyzing traffic and making headline news, if only for a day. But it also brings action, however belated.
The most recent example of community protest against the water monopoly – Guyana Water Incorporated – occurred at de Kinderen, about 23 km from Vreed-en-Hoop on the West Coast of Demerara. Residents blocked the public road demanding better service from the water corporation and impeding the flow of traffic along the public road.
Over a year ago, the corporation laid new pipelines but, apparently, water still does not flow through residents’ taps. As usual, children, the elderly and disabled suffer first and most. Residents are now fed up with what they described as a “cycle of continuous water fetching, irregular black tank visits and an inadequate supply of the most basic human right.” With the swift responsiveness that comes from public embarrassment, corporation officials dashed to the village shortly after the protest began to promise irate residents another batch of water tanks to service the area.
The De Kinderen incident was not unique. Indeed, it is an almost exact replay of a protest one year ago in October 2006 at La Grange Village on West Bank Demerara. Unhappy with the unsatisfactory water supply which was delivered in tanks, villagers protested and blocked the public road, halting the flow of traffic. Police had to be called out to clear the road of residents and wooden planks. In that case, La Grange had been without a regular water supply for over eight months and the corporation resorted to its stand-by water distribution system of sending in plastic water tanks. As time went by, the corporation reduced the supply to an incredible four tanks for the entire village only once per week!
At Golden Grove Village on the East Coast of Demerara, students of President’s College, one of the country’s most exclusive secondary schools, had to call attention to their plight by protesting the college’s lack of potable water by demonstrating on the public road in early October. The water crisis at the college was more than a matter of maladministration by the Ministry of Education; it was also a serious health hazard. In the style that has now become typical of officialdom, corrective action started only after the protest.
Although the administration has measurably improved the delivery of water countrywide, many areas have been neglected, a fact consistent with the findings of the UN Human Development Report, titled Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis. Launching the report last November in Georgetown, acting United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Representative in Guyana Ms Carla Khammar noted that there was still widespread violation of “the basic human right to water.”
Ms Khammar also pointed out that the UN report rejected the view that the global water crisis was about absolute shortages of physical supply. Rather, it argued that the root of the crisis in water can be traced to poverty, inequality and unequal power relationships, as well as flawed water management policies that exacerbate scarcity. She also noted that by crisis it is meant that “too many people do not have access to enough water under the right conditions to live.” In a world of unprecedented wealth, it noted, almost two million children die each year for want of a glass of clean water and a toilet.
The findings of the UN Human Development Report remain relevant to this country in October 2007. GWI’s non-performance in certain coastal communities constitutes a continuous violation of “the basic human right to water.”