In nearly all Caribbean countries, publicly-owned water utilities are responsible for supplying potable water. These utilities abstract, transmit, and distribute water to customers while ensuring that the water meets human consumption standards. Customers are expected to pay for these services, either through tariffs or taxes. Potable water should be continuously available to consumers, typically on a 24/7 basis. To achieve continuity of supply, water distribution systems typically have a degree of interconnectivity and in-system reservoir storage to balance differences in supply and demand, and to cover supply interruptions, such as those mentioned above, and for everyday emergencies such as fire-fighting.
In recent years however, an increasing number of Caribbean water utilities have been considering providing households with water storage tanks as an essential component of the potable water supply system, with a few having already done so. This trend has sparked debate between those who support the measure and those who are vehemently against it.
Typically, water distribution systems rely on centralized storage reservoirs, however various challenges can disrupt the continuity of water supply, both under normal conditions and during emergencies. These challenges include equipment breakdowns, pipe bursts, insufficient storage, water quality concerns, and supply capacity issues. Emergency situations, such as prolonged droughts, strain water supplies, already exacerbated by the poor state of water distribution networks in some jurisdictions. Fast-onset weather events like 2017’s Hurricane Maria which destroyed 43 out of 44 of Dominica’s water systems can present contamination, water scarcity and infrastructure challenges.
Governments in the Caribbean respond to these supply disruptions in diverse ways, from setting resilience targets to installing community water tanks and implementing water rationing. In countries like Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago, households have installed household water tanks to offset disrupted water supply after water utility companies began encouraging its adoption. This encouragement takes various forms, including providing tanks to vulnerable households, retrofitting tanks to public facilities, and establishing low-cost funds for homeowners to invest in storage. These initiatives aim to enhance climate resilience and ensure water supply during emergencies.
Arguments in favour of distributed storage include enhanced supply security during emergencies, climate adaptation, and shared responsibility amid low water tariffs. With low water tariffs and the reluctance by authorities and politicians to raise water prices (in some countries water prices have not been raised in more than a decade), it is said that it is reasonable to expect consumers to shoulder some of the responsibility for ensuring their own household water security. It may also create employment opportunities. However, opponents argue that it complicates distribution system operations, increases pumping costs and carbon footprint, normalises intermittent supply, and shifts the supply burden onto consumers. It may also compromise the social contract between utilities and citizens, rewarding utilities for their inability to provide an adequate and reliable service.
Each country must decide how to fulfil its duty to provide citizens with the human right to water and sanitation. Water utilities face challenges in balancing service quality and controlling costs, particularly in light of climate change. Each utility has to judge the risks it faces and how best to respond. While the proliferation of distributed storage may not be the ideal solution, it's a response to the increasing challenges in maintaining water supplies. As utilities invest in infrastructure and adopt SMART water systems, they may be better equipped to meet service expectations under both normal and emergency conditions.
I acknowledge the assistance and discussions around the topic with colleagues from across the Caribbean. The opinions expressed here are my own and for which I take responsibility.
Dr Adrian Cashman has over 40 years of experience in the water sector and has been working in the Caribbean for the past 16 years, first with the University of the West Indies (UWI) and more recently as an water management consultant. At UWI he led the water resources management programme in the Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES. At CERMES he trained and mentored many postgraduate students who have gone on to play important roles in the water sector across the Region. Prior to moving to the Caribbean, he was a Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield’s Water Centre working on asset management. From 1982 until 1998 he worked in Namibia with the Department of Water Affairs as Director of Water Operations and also Civil Design. He has a first degree in Civil Engineering, a Masters degree in Environmental Economics and a Doctorate in Social Science.
Dr Cashman’s published works cover a diverse range of fields, and he has worked with a wide range of international and regional organisations on water and climate related matters. In 2020 he received the Caribbean Water and Wastewater Associations Gold Award for services to the Caribbean water sector.