Mark Barnett, CEO of Jamaica's National Water Commission, speaks about facing a historic drought and his dual-pronged strategy of reducing water losses and bringing on two new supply projects.
A 27-year water utility journey
For the President of a water company of an island nation in the middle of a drought, Mark Barnett comes across as incredibly relaxed.
Perhaps it's the quintessential laid-back nature of Jamaican culture, but behind Barnett's chilled-out exterior is a utility leader with a technical pedigree. He is celebrating 27 years at the National Water Commission (NWC), Jamaica's leading water utility, a solid innings which he describes as a "journey".
“In January, Jamaica received only 32 per cent of its 30-year-average rainfall. Water wise, the country is currently in dire straits.”
He studied Chemical and Process engineering at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine campus, in Trinidad. And he then worked at the National Environment and Planning Agency for a few months before starting as a wastewater engineer at NWC. He got a scholarship to study at Loughborough University in England, eventually graduating with a Master’s of Science in Water and Waste Engineering.
A historic drought
Despite temptations of international postings where Barnett’s skills would have no doubt been put to good use, it could perhaps be called destiny that he ended up back with a fruitful career in his home nation, which he describes as “a real honour to give back”.
Shortly after the interview begins, the CEO says that he's soon due to join the Jamaican Prime Minister, Andrew Holness, for a media briefing on the island’s handling of the drought.
“The Prime Minister has always been mindful of situations like these and has always tasked us to look at those projects which could create a reliable water supply,” he adds.
To provide some context: in January alone, Jamaica received only 32 per cent of its 30-year-average rainfall for that month. Water wise, the country is currently in dire straits.
Barnett says some of the water systems are well below 50 per cent in terms of output. In the capital city of Kingston, the water supply is down to 70 per cent for the corporate area.
"It does put some pressure on the network," he adds. "We have to initiate some level of restriction, not restriction that is overly onerous. We still are able to provide upwards of 12 hours of distribution per day in different areas alternately. We have to now embark on an increased public education and public relations campaign, way above our normal PR activities.”
A dual-pronged water strategy
The President’s game plan to tackle the historic drought is multifaceted but comes down to two main strategies: reducing non-revenue water (NRW) and also bringing two new treatment facilities online.
“We see non-revenue water as key in all of our investment strategies,” he adds. “While we are undertaking non-revenue water projects as we speak, it has only been done in discrete areas.”
The NWC is currently pursuing a performance-based project as part of the broader Jamaica government investment programme worth $45 billion Jamaican dollars (US$300 million). It's an island-wide NRW project, as it’s deemed “a critical national project, not only for cutting losses but also for the longevity and sustainability of supply as well as an adaptation strategy to climate change”.
Later this year, the NWC intends to approach the market with the intention of engaging an organisation to lead the implementation of this 15-year project. He openly admits that fixing leaks is not “the sexiest type of operations”, nor does it garner the political and popular attention of ribbon cutting for new facility openings.
“It’s a long-term intervention we’re pursuing,” adds the President. “It's just tedious work that you have to be sticking to, to fix the network and re-engineer it, if you will.”
He adds: “When we started NRW in Kingston, it was never something that anybody wanted to talk about. It’s not seen as something that’s relevant. We’re accustomed to putting in new infrastructure and cutting ribbons, with everyone feeling happy as there’s something to show.”
New capacity coming online
NWC will also be pursuing an additional water treatment facility to bring immediate capacity into the system, with ground expected to be broken in June this year. Construction is expected to take 20 months thereafter.
A second new facility estimated at US$105 million will also be developed on the western side of the island to provide an additional 10 million gallons of water, including 30 kilometres of transmission mains.
"We are pursuing two big projects from a water supply side in response to mitigating the long-term effects of the extended dry season, resulting in the declaration of a drought."
While bringing new capacity online, it’s fundamental that this is coupled with the water loss reduction strategy, he explains. Simply put: why spend considerable money and energy on producing more water if over half of it will get simply lost through leaky pipes?
“We have been able to convince our Ministry of Finance that irrespective of what intervention that we bring, if we're going to do a new capacity, we must also reduce NRW,” adds Barnett.
“And it is simple maths. If you are losing 60 per cent of your treated water before it reaches any customer, there's nothing to say you won't lose the same amount when you add new capacity. Your investment is already going into the ground without it realising the true impact as it was intended.”
Bullish on driving down losses
Barnett has been banging the NRW drum for some time, especially at international conferences such as the Water-Energy Exchange (WEX) and domestically, having been able to “convince and sell this all the way up to the Prime Minister that NRW must be at the forefront of projects to be undertaken”.
“NRW has become part of our speaking DNA – we’re getting buy-in from the policymakers to appreciate that irrespective of what you put into the network if the network isn't good, you're not going to get good out of it."
The result? Island-wide, water loss reduction activity. In one five-year co-management partnership (2015-2021) involving the international water engineering company, Miya, water losses were reduced from 63 per cent down to 40 per cent. Barnett is bullish on going further than this.
"Our target is 30 per cent," he says adamantly. "We believe, based on the immediate investment and the returns that we anticipate in keeping with a reduction in NRW to less than 30 per cent, it will be profitable for both the utility and the private enterprise that would be engaged."
He admits that 30 per cent is not the limit and that further significant investment is required to get the incremental savings beyond a certain level. Further economic analysis is needed “to determine how much investment is required and what would be the likely return for that investment”.
Longer term, the President sees Jamaica as an island that overcame crippling droughts by taking on and reducing NRW: a success story to share and help others. And that is a legacy that any water company CEO would be proud to achieve.
Tom Freyberg is the content director of Aquatech Online.