Water, but not drinking water

“Water, water everywhere, Nor any drop to drink,” is a line from the poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, detailing how a sailor on a becalmed ship is surrounded by undrinkable salt water. Across the length and breadth of Guyana, many people can relate to the paradoxical situation regarding the paucity of safe drinking tap water in the “land of many waters.”

The inability of the state-run water utility to supply potable tap water has been a longstanding problem spanning decades. Many children have grown into adulthood never having drunk tap water without it being first subjected to some form of purifying treatment, even if simply by boiling. Of course, not everyone in Guyana has the financial means to afford to purchase purified water periodically, or to instal a filtration system to make the tap water drinkable. Some of the less fortunate in our midst have no other option but to use the water in the state which it is supplied by the water utility.

Despite this problem being so longstanding and affecting the capital city, no less, insufficient has been done to openly address this deficiency which, any country serious about the health of its citizens, should have resolved the problem long ago now. At the same time the Guyana Water Inc (GWI) under its Chief Executive Officer, Dr Richard Van West-Charles, seems to have been focusing the utility’s attention on bringing potable water to previously un-served areas – a laudable initiative – rather than looking to bring potable water once more to the capital city and other towns and villages.

But the upgrading of the water purification and distribution system in the city and towns should not be seen as mutually exclusive to the provision of potable water via a piped water system to previously un-served rural areas. The water utility should see both these initiatives as necessary and imperative, with the ability to impact other developments in the country, particularly as the oil and gas sector looms.

Just this week President David Granger attended the 8th World Water Forum held in Brazil and delivered an address at the opening ceremony entitled, ‘Rivers and water security.’ In his address, President Granger said, “The protection of the sources of the world’s freshwater is essential to ensuring citizens’ entitlement to water; communities’ access to safe and sanitary water; and countries and the continent’s water security.”

The World Water Forum, founded in 1996, is organised by the World Water Council whose mission is expressed in part as, “to promote awareness, build political commitment and trigger action on critical water issues at all levels.” The theme for this year’s forum was ‘Sharing water’ and President Granger’s address took strategic aim at the issue of the security of shared water resources, saying that, “Rivers are important for the security of states. Half of the world’s peoples live in countries, like Guyana and Brazil, which share river boundaries. The management of trans-boundary watercourses must promote cooperation and collaboration rather than confrontation and conflict.”

Nevertheless, if the President were to give an address on water to the Guyanese people, he would undoubtedly have to bite the bullet and address the issue regarding “communities’ access to safe and sanitary water” which he mentioned in his address in Brazil. He would also be required to demonstrate the “political commitment” and willingness to “trigger action on critical water issues” as chronicled in the Mission Statement of the World Water Council. The President’s brief address in Brazil struck the right notes, given the international audience and recognising Guyana’s own border security concerns as deserving of strategic mention in context whenever the opportunity presents itself. However, on as important a matter as water security, it is necessary for our government to show greater commitment in recognising the magnitude of the problem in our cities and towns that should have been benefiting from a potable water supply system, but are not.

Since the word ‘potable’ means ‘safe drinking water,’ the GWI must have the ability to test its water at various points in the distribution system to come to grips with the level of contamination that occurs after the water has left the utility’s treatment plants. Standards bodies must also be equipped to independently verify the level of purity of our piped water emanating from the GWI’s water treatment plants.

The burgeoning business in locally filtered water aside, there is also a fair amount of importation of bottled water occurring in Guyana, and this can only be seen as a waste of resources, and does nothing to ensure the ordinary citizen’s access to safe water.

The quality of the water supply in a country or community is directly linked to the health of the people, and this in turn determines how much of the country’s financial resources are drained on drugs, medication and treatment, and how many man-hours are lost in the production of goods and services through illnesses and diseases that may have been transmitted through contaminated water.

Water security indeed must begin at the source, and the President’s referencing of the freshwater resources shared with our neighbours on the Guyana Shield was necessary indeed and strategic from a macro perspective, but it now behoves this administration to take a microscopic look at the issue of water security and what it means to the ordinary citizen of Guyana, including the vulnerable sector of the very old and the very young, and the hard-working minimum wage earners.

That water is life is an unquestionable fact, and given the sizeable budget of the water sector, government must commit to ensuring potable water is carried from the water treatment plants to the kitchen taps in all of our homes in the city, towns and villages.

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