BY CARMELO RUIZ-MARRERO
SAN JUAN — The Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewers Authority (PRASA) is on the verge of collapse. In the last few years, the citizenry has been showered with a seemingly endless string of press reports about the agency's incompetence and inefficiency.
Whole communities all over this Caribbean island have gone without water for weeks, even months and years. And the 1995 privatisation of PRASA's administration to the Compania de Aguas, a subsidiary of the France-based Vivendi corporation, has not helped at all, according to government documents and press reports.
This week the Puerto Rico Office of the Comptroller issued a report about PRASA's performance that pointed out glaring deficiencies and irregularities. Among these, the agency is operating with losses of US$695 million, and has not collected US$165 million in bills.
The report estimates that approximately half of PRASA's water is wasted because of leaky aqueducts.
Also, the Comptroller found 3181 deficiencies in the administration, operation and maintenance of its infrastructure. The report also mentions that between 1995 and 2000, the United States Environmental Protection Agency fined PRASA a total of US$6.2 million for various violations of US environmental laws.
Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States, the only such arrangement in US history. Its residents are US citizens and are subject to US laws, but do not vote in presidential elections, and have no voice or vote in Congress.
Comptroller Manuel Diaz-Saldana declared that the Compania de Aguas has not improved PRASA's service or the quality of its water in any way. The privatisation "has been a bad business deal for the people of Puerto Rico", said the Comptroller in a press conference. "We cannot keep administering the authority the way it has been done until now."
This is not the first government report critical of PRASA and the Compania de Aguas. Back in 1999 the Comptroller had documented numerous faults in both entities, including deficiencies in the maintenance, repair, administration and operation of aqueducts and sewers; and required financial reports that were either late or not made.
The suffering and havoc caused by PRASA's failures has a very human face. Movimiento Agua Para Todos (MAPT), a coalition of waterless communities in eastern Puerto Rico, has documented the effect of the water crisis on public health. The organisation reports cases of skin allergies, gastroenteritis, conjunctivitis, and muscular spasms suffered by people who carry heavy water containers.
MAPT also reports that the members of communities without water are afflicted by desperation, irritability, anxiety, frustration, loss of self-esteem and depression, and their marriages and family life are greatly stressed.
There are also serious economic impacts. Family budgets are badly depleted by expenses such as water filters, bottled water, cisterns and pumps. The effect of the lack of water on businesses, such as cafeterias and bakeries, has been nothing less than disastrous.
"This situation calls for a complete reorganisation of PRASA's administration, especially its top management", stated Sarah Peisch, of the Centro de Accion Ambiental, a local environmental NGO. "There are many 'batatas politicas' in there, that is, people who work there not because of their talent and merit but because of their political affiliations. They must be fired and replaced with serious and committed professionals."
Puerto Rico's water debacle is apparently part of a larger, global crisis. "Global consumption of water is doubling every twenty years, more than twice the rate of human population growth", according to Blue Gold, a report by the International Forum on Globalization.
"According to the United Nations, more than one billion people on Earth already lack access to fresh drinking water. If current trends persist, by 2025 the demand for fresh water is expected to rise by 56% more than is currently available."
The document declares that "experience shows that selling water on the open market does not address the needs of poor, thirsty people. On the contrary, privatised water is delivered to those who can pay for it, such as wealthy cities and individuals and water-intensive industries such as agriculture and high-tech."