We do not need another Berbice Bridge

Dear Editor,

The briefings provided by the Sithe/ Blackstone group to the parliamentary sectoral committees on Natural Resources and Economic Services and to the National Stakeholders Forum are no substitute for a Green Paper that includes the findings of independent objective technical and financial assessments.

At the National Stakeholders Forum on 31 July, Sithe Global stressed that it had spent US$16M and 6 years so far on the Amaila project, although it was not explained how the money had been spent other than ‘hundreds of scientists working on environmental issues.’ How odd that there are no published reports from these hundreds of scientists in the public domain.

According to Mr Brassington, Sithe Global had begun to have some engagement with the parliamentary opposition parties only from January 2012 (not before), and had shared confidential documents with them.

Internal Sithe/Blackstone documents, whether confidential or not, are no substitute for independent technical and financial assessments of a project of this magnitude in Guyana.

If Guyanese taxpayers had had the benefit of an external review, we might have been spared the debt burden of the white elephant named Skeldon Sugar Factory whose costs to date are US $200M, and counting.

We might have had an alignment of the Berbice River Bridge that did not turn New Amsterdam into a backwater settlement; a toll that did not cost $2,200 per car versus the Demerara River Bridge toll of $200 per car.

While the Berbice River Bridge was being constructed, the majority of poor Berbicians might have thought that they would be paying the same toll as the Demerara River Bridge commuters.

They lost corn and husk: there is no alternative cheap ferry. They must use the Berbice River bridge. Wealthy investors are the principal beneficiaries of that bridge; the state has been foregoing revenues so that the privileged investors can earn dividends.

We would definitely have avoided the use of taxpayers’ money to fund the construction of a casino/hotel named the Marriott by a Chinese company using Chinese labour, and that will bring no named social or economic benefits to Guyana. Dr Luncheon has already signalled that the casino will be sold on … Guyanese have been speculating on the identity of the likely buyers.

We would not have embarked on an unnecessary expansion of the Timehri Airport at great social and economic cost.

According to Mr Brassington, if Amaila becomes a reality the government will force self-generators to go back on the national grid by withdrawing the duty free concessions now given for generators and spare parts. Neither those self-generators nor the Guyanese on the grid know what will be the cost of electricity sold by GPL, or how power will be supplied when the water level at the Amaila dam drops below the critical level during periods of drought, or when the turbines are undergoing maintenance. It is GPL, not the Public Utilities Commission, that is legally charged with setting that tariff, and GPL which has to maintain alternative generator capacity.  The drip, drip, drip of varying estimates of the component costs of this major construction project and associated commercial debts give no confidence that the government knows what it is agreeing to with Sithe Global Inc – whose only other venture into hydropower is the expensive and poorly-managed construction at Bujagali in Uganda, although the same personnel working for another Sithe company are said to have built other hydels. No details were provided other than a dam in Philippines.  Sithe clearly does not want to get sucked into questions about the management and capabilities of GPL and whether GPL can pay the future debt in full and on time.

The current draft agreement commits to Sithe getting the first cut of GPL income paid into Republic Bank, before GPL itself gets any money to pay its own costs.  Sithe contested the comparison between the construction costs of the Amaila Falls dam and other recent hydropower in other countries, published in Kaieteur News on 31 July, arguing that some of the lower prices in US dollars per megawatt reflected the exclusion of the cost of transmission lines and access road which are needed for Amaila Falls.

However, even taking those into account, Amaila Falls appears to be among the highest-cost in the world, due partly to the inclusion of several hitherto unrevealed costs for which details are still not in the public domain.  And surely it was odd that the President and Prime Minister and Minister Irfaan Ali had not been provided by Blackstone/Sithe with the most recent cost data before putting the apex of Government on public display?

There are still several major questions unanswered so it was reassuring that Blackstone/Sithe said at the second National Stakeholders’ consultation that they would be willing to answer them and to provide to everyone their presentation slides from the meeting on 31 July.

Blackstone/Sithe confirmed that they would be willing to assist in the preparation of a Green Paper to the National Assembly, laying out objectively in sufficient detail the pros and cons of different options for future supply of electricity, including the final line item costs to the Guyanese taxpayer; until now, the government appears to have been considering only the single option of Amaila Falls and only cost estimates provided by the project partners.  So, even if late in the day, now is the time to have expert independent input and check on these project developer’s figures, to inform the members of all political parties in the National Assembly and civil society in general.

It is surely not acceptable for the government to try to co-opt individuals by taking them into private meetings and showing them documents; that is not transparency nor the freedom to receive information which is assured by Article 146 of the National Constitution.

I hope that our parliamentarians will think long and hard before voting for something that could turn into another Berbice Bridge — one in which most of the benefits are privatized, even while all the costs are socialised.

We do not need another Berbice Bridge — the costs borne by the average Guyanese, a cash cow for the private investor.


Yours faithfully,
Janette Bulkan

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