Water woes worsening: blame climate change

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

This photo taken on May 14 at the Petrotrin Pond, Gasparillo, shows the water level significantly lower than usual. – Photo by Venessa Mohammed

With the unprecedented evaporation being seen in the reservoirs by the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA), with more to come due to climate change, citizens are finding it harder and more stressful to be able to function without water.

For those already struggling with water issues, they have already put measures in place to deal with an unsteady supply, but worry that further restrictions will be detrimental.

Journalist Melissa Wong-Jones said the water schedule in Arima was not consistent, especially since WASA had revised schedules earlier in the year.

“We are supposed to get water three days a week from 6am-6pm, but so far we only get water once a week since the revised schedule and it only comes when we are asleep. If the water pressure is not strong enough our tanks will not fill, so we regularly call for water truck service from WASA to fill the two 400-gallon tanks.

“We have three barrels, which are really to collect rainwater as a backup, and it has been tough with no rain. It is usually a lifesaver during the rainy season.”

She said her family had implemented several conservation measures to stretch their water supply.

“We have stopped using the shower and use a tall bucket (which is a permanent fixture in the bathroom now) to take quick baths and ensure we don’t use more water than needed from the water tank. My seven-year-old son has learnt to use a cup when brushing his teeth and washing his face instead of keeping the faucet running.

“Our tank water is very precious, so we try to keep it for cooking and the bathroom. When washing the dishes we don’t keep the faucet running, only turning it on when it’s time to rinse.”

She said a major hurdle is washing clothes, especially work and school clothes.

“By mid-week to weekend, most times the water will be running low in the tanks and to ensure we keep some water running inside the house, we turn to the barrel water to full the washing machine instead. Then it’s Monday all over again and we hope water comes to full the tanks and barrels.

“Since we can’t use hoses during the dry season, my dad uses the barrel water to tend to his plants, because he has a small garden with fruit trees and flowers.

“Only today I was telling Damian we should buy another large tank because of the water scarcity issue. Not having a reliable water supply adds to my anxiety a lot.”

For elderly people, the strain is also exacerbated, as they have to contend with health issues. Reporter Josette Deonanan, whose parents live in Princes Town, said they have to be careful of falling when collecting water.

“Water goes three-five days a week. My dad works but my mom doesn’t due to ill health. Because no one’s home, she has to go to the back of the house and carry water up the back stairs and there’s been several instances where she’s almost fallen down while carrying it.

“My parents have one singular tank that fills when water comes. When the tank runs low, my dad has to drive to a standpipe in the area, fill containers and bring it back. My granddad, who lives right next door ,has to use rainwater when his tank runs low.

“There have also been instances where we’ve called the water truck and they don’t come.”

She said the family has separate buckets for bathing, washing (which is also used for the toilets) and for cooking.

Traditionally, people have collected rainwater in order to supplement what they did not get in their pipes. Several initiatives have been carried out by organisations such as NIHERST and Global Water Partnership. In 2022, the Ministry of Public Utilities signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) for a National Rainwater Harvesting programme, and in 2023 the East Port of Spain Development Company Ltd reintroduced its Community-Based Rainwater Harvesting Programme to Morvant communities.

Acting director of the Meteorological Service (TTMS) Shakeer Baig said the hot conditions were being driven by global climate change, the El Nino phenomenon, urbanisation and increased Sahara dust episodes.

He said those have resulted in drought-like conditions, water scarcity, increased bush fires and altered rainfall patterns.

In a statement on Monday, WASA said the high temperatures experienced over the last five months of the harsh dry season along with relatively low rainfall had resulted in evaporation owing to excessive heat, with a reduction of 35 million gallons per day (gpd).

WASA is advising people to conserve water, and has implemented several emergency measures, including establishing a Central Command Centre (CCC) to monitor production and supply 24 hours a day; opening its call centre 24 hours a day; and adding three phone numbers (463-8360/496-6738/709-7793) for use between 10 pm and 6 am.

It is also increasing its water trucking capacity; redirecting supply to adversely affected areas; reviewing water supply schedules; getting Desalcott to provide additional water to southwest and south-central Trinidad; contracting Seven Seas Desalination to increase production by 300,000 gpd; and prioritising supply for health institutions, senior citizens’ homes, schools and religious institutions.

Speaking on the NOW Morning Show on TTT on May 16, WASA network intelligence and optimisation department head Alisha Romano said 2024 is billed as the hottest year ever and promised to beat records set in 2023.

“Our evaporation system is out of control, and this really affects our reservoirs. The work we did prior coming into the dry season is helping us, as more people have access to water.”

Romano said instead of waiting for people calling to ask for truck-borne water individually, the authority was gathering all the reports from one area and trucking water to that area.

“So people can actually depend on this water, on this particular day, once their schedule was not met in that area. Operations is trying to reduce the need for truck-borne water, but once the entire area is not being served because of the low water pressure, you know water will be delivered to you.”

Abdool said climate change is a fact, and the public needs to understand that.

“The changes the authority have made will help address that situation.

“What we need to understand as well, as consumers of water, as customers of the authority, we have a responsibility as well. We have to be able to conserve our water, manage our demand, and save water for our neighbour to have as well. We cannot be selfish in that regard. We’d like to ask you, the consumer ,to help us conserve what we have, to manage the supply we have in this harsh dry season.”

She said the number of people at the call centre had been doubled owing to the increased number of calls.

“This is a worldwide problem. My staff goes through social media to see how it affects the neighbouring islands and I was shocked. Every single island is being affected and they’re asking the public to have patience with them as we are.

“The good thing is we had put things in place prior, so it’s not as bad for us.”

In an Associated Press article titled Thirsty in paradise: Water crises are a growing problem across the Caribbean islands, University of Maryland assistant professor Farah Nibbs said Trinidad is experiencing its worst drought in recent memory, and residents are under water restrictions through at least the end of June 2024, with fines for anyone who violates the rules.

Speaking at the media conference, Public Utilities Minister Marvin Gonzales cited last month’s Caribbean Climate Outlook Newsletter, which said 2024 is shaping up to be a year of extremes in the Caribbean, with an intense heat season consisting of recurrent heatwaves.

“Indeed, countries throughout the region have been experiencing the effects of this extreme weather.

“This week our neighbours in Grenada implemented restrictions in water usage in an attempt to manage the impact of its driest dry season in 14 years, while in Guyana, agriculture has been severely affected by long and severe drought-like conditions, compelling the government to send food aid to certain regions within the country.”

Nibbs said Dominica is seeing a significant decrease in freshwater resources and increasingly frequent water shortages. In Grenada, drought has affected water systems throughout the island.

She said Jamaica is also facing water restrictions and has had to resort to water shutoffs in recent years, limiting water availability to a few hours per day in some areas. She said St Vincent and St Kitts have had to ration water and Barbados has experienced several water bans in recent years.

Nibbs said the Caribbean is one of the most water-stressed regions in the world and in addition to changing precipitation patters and droughts, there are three reasons water demand is outstripping supply.

The first is rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. She said the Caribbean is one of the most rapidly urbanising regions in the world.

“About three-quarters of its population lives in cities, and that percentage is rising, adding pressure on public water systems.

“At the same time, increased industrialisation and commercialisation of agriculture have degraded water quality and in some cases encroached on sensitive water catchment areas, affecting the soil’s capacity to retain water.

“This competing demand for limited fresh water has reduced stream flows and led to water being drawn down from sensitive sources. Unregulated extraction of groundwater can also worsen the problem. Many islands depend on groundwater.”

Nibbs said the second issue is the fact that the tourism industry in most Caribbean countries is water-intensive, as tourist economies depend on vast quantities of water.

“Even during water rationing, water is diverted to hotels and other tourist-dependent sites first. That can leave local residents without water for hours or days at a time and facing fines if they violate use restrictions.

“Tourism not only increases the consumption of water but also the pollution of water resources.”

The third issue, according to Nibbs, is weak water infrastructure governance, which leads to excessive loss of treated water before it even reaches the customer.

She said a well-performing water utility will usually have water losses – known as non-revenue water – below 30 per cent.

“In the Caribbean, the average nonrevenue water is 46 per cent, with some as high as 75 per cent. The reasons range from lack of appropriate management practices to metering inaccuracies, leaks and theft.”

Nibbs said climate change and extreme weather worsen water insecurity, as troubled water systems can struggle on good days. Worsening extreme weather, such as hurricanes and flooding, can damage infrastructure, leading to long outages and expensive repairs.

“The Caribbean is the second-most disaster-prone region in the world. The islands face frequent earthquakes, landslides, devastating hurricanes and other destructive storms. As global temperatures and sea levels rise, the risk of extreme weather and storm surge causing erosion, flooding and saltwater contamination increases.”

Nibs said improving water access in the Caribbean means working on all of those challenges. Better governance and investment can help reduce water loss from theft and leaks. Government and social pressure and educating tourists can help reduce waste at hotels and resorts.

She recommended increasing water supply through the use of rainwater harvesting, combining it with central water systems in a managed hybrid water model.