The latest wave of disconnections launched by the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) for non-payment of bills is likely to achieve the desired effect of sending delinquent consumers scurrying to pay their bills. After all, piped water is a service no one would want to lose.
Under normal circumstances, terminating a service for non-payment of bills would be the logical thing to do. But this is Trinidad and Tobago where the relationship between the national water authority and its customers is anything but logical or straightforward. Consumers do not expect to lose their service for non-payment but they also know that when WASA gets into a cash flow crisis they can expect to be threatened with a cut in their water supply at which point they know they must somehow cough up the money to maintain their water supply.
With WASA having telegraphed its plan to disconnect delinquent customers from last Tuesday, the rush is on to pay. Soon WASA will be able to calculate the income impact of this round of disconnections and determine to what extent its cash crunch has been eased. After that, both WASA and its customers will likely return to their usual lackadaisical ways.
While common sense would suggest that disconnections should be a routine aspect of WASA’s operations, the fact is that its operations defy the business standard. Water being the essential commodity that it is, WASA understands that it cannot apply a pure business approach to what is increasingly being referred to as the right to water. At the same time, however, WASA cannot hold its customers to a business standard because it does not hold itself to one. Thousands of its customers can validly claim that WASA does not provide them with the service for which they pay. For WASA to get to the point where it can hold its customers to account for bill payment, it must itself be accountable to them for the quality of its service. When it fails to do so, it loses the moral and, some might argue legal authority, to enforce the rules.
Clearly, this is an untenable situation which can only lead to disaster, given the state of WASA’s finances and need for capital to finance urgent infrastructural development.
WASA has every right to threaten delinquent customers with disconnection, especially businesses and income-earning households which are all benefiting from the subsidy that keeps water cheaper in Trinidad and Tobago than elsewhere in the Caribbean. However, disconnection drives are not a sustainable way of operating. As much as the public should be able to rely on WASA for water, WASA should be able to rely on its customers to pay their bills within a stated time-frame, failing which it can be expected to act in its interest.
By allowing customers to accumulate arrears over months and years, WASA has been encouraging the perception that there is no consequence for not paying its water bills. Instead, they will exercise the option to pay only those bills which, if left unpaid would lose them a valued service. Clearly, for many, the WASA bill is not among these.