With anxious eyes, we are increasingly casting our eyes upwards, scanning the horizon for some sign that the good Lord will open the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing on our thirsty land. Alas! The encouraging signs are not there. Worse, the folks at the meteorological office are not hopeful that we will see any significant rainfall any time soon. And not forgetting to mention the equally gloomy outlook from the folks at the Antigua Public Utilities Authority (APUA). They have called this dreadful drought the worst that we have seen in eighty years. According to a report published in THE DAILY OBSERVER, June 20, 2020: “Under normal conditions, APUA distributes water produced by three sources: 60 percent from reverse osmosis, 30 percent from surface water treatment plants, and 10 percent from groundwater. However, in late March the Deluxe Water Treatment Plant ended its operations because reservoirs dried up. ‘That had us at a deficit of 700,00 gallons a day. The Bendals Water Treatment Plant is being fed from its final source, and if these drought conditions continue, then the ground water will also be affected,’ Francis said.” The Francis being referred to here is Tesfa Francis, the APUA’s production engineer. His is an unenviable task.
The thing is that we are baffled as to why successive administrations cannot seem to get a handle on our longstanding water problem; we’re talking about a propensity towards drought conditions and water shortage problem going back to the days of Columbus. History records that Christopher Columbus never bothered to set foot on Antigua because it was too dry. He sailed by, he saw, and he conquered/claimed in the name of Ferdinand and Isabella. After naming us for a church in Spain, he continued on his merry diabolical way.
During the heyday of the estates in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, every estate dug huge ponds and other water catchments to provide water for livestock and the vast acreages under cultivation. It was a challenge, but the planters rose to the occasion and made Antigua one of the big sugar-producing islands in the Caribbean. Of course, it was the brutal and criminal exploitation of our ancestors that made Antigua produce so much wealth, and we ought never to forget that fact, or the fact that reparations are due. But that is a discussion for another editorial. The point is that, steps were taken to combat the frequent droughts. For example, a huge reservoir was constructed at Betty’s Hope (it is still standing) to satisfy the water needs of that huge estate (the biggest on the island, and one of the five biggest in the entire Caribbean) and other surrounding properties.
In later years, when many of the estates no longer used the sugar mills for extracting cane juice, a number of those mills were sealed shut and used as water catchments. For example, one of the two mills at Betty’s Hope was thus converted, as was the mill at the south-easterly entrance to New Winthorpes village, the former Blizzard’s Estate. The top half of that mill was sealed, and water was stored in it to help satisfy the water needs of Barnes Hill, by way of gravity. It was a civil engineering marvel at that time.
And speaking of Barnes Hill, there is a huge historic reservoir there that can house several million gallons of water. It was recently restored by the Barnes Hill Community Development Organisation, under the leadership of our late, and highly-esteemed, Timothy Payne. (Tim, who loved and cherished the Barnes Hill and New Winthorpes community dearly, will be memorialised in a service at the St Georges Anglican Church today. Rest in power, brother!). And so it goes, a huge reservoir in Willikies. Another on Wink-Eye Hill on the western outskirts of New Winthorpes. Another on the road to Pigeon Point from the Antigua Naval Yard. And yet another on Grays Hill. We’re talking about solutions to our water problem.
Look folks, at the turn of the last century, the Fisher Dam (an impressive concrete water catchment), as well as the Brecknocks #1 and Brecknocks #2, two other huge water catchments in the Bendals area, were used to supply water to large portions of Antigua. Not forgetting the famed Body Ponds in the Swetes area, and the Fiennes Wells (about five of them) that were dug in the area just west of the clinic in Bendals. Seems, we were an enterprising people back then, rising always to meet and defeat the challenge to our survival on this thirsty land of ours.
Interestingly, in more recent times (the early 1970’s), this writer recalls the days when water had to be barged from Dominica. So dire was our water situation. During those years, the government is said to have sent up aircraft to ‘seed’ clouds that were supposed to then break and produce rain. It was unclear as to the efficacy of that effort. Then there were the dozens of water trucks that were used to pick up water from the overhead pipes at Grays Hill and transport it to a number of hotels around Antigua. Many businessmen made a small fortune from that enterprise.
Of course, this discourse would not be complete without looking at the famed Potworks Dam. Legend has it that when Papa Sir V.C. Bird envisaged the setting up of that dam as a big source of water in the 1960’s, many Antiguans scoffed at the notion, and asked whether he was going to . . . uh . . . (how can we put this delicately) ‘relieve himself’ therein so as to get it filled. Serendipitously, a deluge of Biblical proportions fell on Antigua in a matter of hours after the grand opening in 1970, and the dream of a major water source became a reality. Potworks Dam is actually two huge water catchments, Potworks and Delaps, covering over a mile (the largest in the Eastern Caribbean) and housing a billion gallons of water. Today, Potworks Dam is as dry as those days when folks could drive vehicles through it as a short-cut to the village of Bethesda. Sigh!
So here we are, in an era when arid deserts are now blooming like roses, thanks to modern technology, still rationing water, and the APUA is suppressing water, here, there, and everywhere. For instance, these past two days, due to maintenance issues at the Pigeon Point and the Crabbs reverse osmosis plants, a goodly portion of the island was adversely affected by serious water suppression. And so it goes – water rationing, discoloured water, days-on-end without water, sporadic water, or no damn water at all. It’s all par for the course. One day, it’s pipe maintenance. Another day, it’s rough seas. And yet another day, it’s the osmosis membranes. In this age of Covid-19, when the watchword is ‘wash hands regularly,’ our government is struggling mightily to provide reliable water. Backyard gardens everyone! But no blessed water. Mind you, this is the bloviating administration that promised to fix our vexing water problem. Seems, much like many of their vain promises, this administration has not, and manifestly will not be able to deliver. So sad!
We wonder why some of the old reservoirs cannot be restored? Why some of the ponds and water catchments cannot be enlarged and deepened? Why things that seem so elementary in other countries, and were so easy in times past, are now so complicated and bizarre in Antigua and Barbuda? We think we know why. Do you? Hmmmm! In the meantime, let’s keep praying for rain.