The 1,2-million-strong population of Mauritius at present enjoys plentiful piped potable water from the 2 000mm average annual rainfall that falls over the island. But large amounts of water are wasted, and with growing demand from new development, the island’s water security may come under pressure in the near future.
Mauritians get their water supply from five big reservoirs on the island and five underground aquifers that have already reached their exploitation limit.
Of the 920-million cubic metres of water used each year, 46% goes to irrigation, 32% to the production of electricity and 22% for domestic use, hotels and industries.
Vast amounts of water — an estimated 46% of the daily water production of 500 000 cubic metres by the Central Water Authority (CWA) — are wasted as a result of aged and leaking distribution pipes. Mauritius also suffers from a rapid evacuation and evaporation of water because of the topography of the island.
Public Utilities Minister Abu Kasenally says that the threat to water security in Mauritius does not spring solely from the evident deficiencies in the water distribution system.
“Climate change is also affecting us more than we can imagine, as rainfall have started decreasing in our region,” he observes.
In its Human Development Report for 2006, the United Nations Development Programme classified Mauritius as a water-stressed country, as it was able to provide less than 1 700 cubic metres of water per person per year to its population. And despite warnings that the island may suffer water scarcity by 2020, Mauritians show little consciousness of a need to conserve water. Numerous awareness-raising programmes by government have made little impression.
“I don’t think we’ll have any problem with our water supply, because this is a God-given gift and it’ll always rain,” quips Adil Latarrh, an inhabitant of the capital, Port-Louis. Adil was washing the family car with a hosepipe as he spoke to this correspondent, but he didn’t bother to switch it off.
At home, it is through washing and watering their lawns that people waste water go without showing any concern about the bills. Mauritians pay only 4,50 rupees — less than $0,02 — for 1 000 litres of water.
Mauritius recently started repairing its age-old distribution system with a $45-million loan from the European Investment Bank. The conditions of the pipes are being checked and any leaks repaired.
“We have also started changing the old pipes in the centre of the island where quite a big number of our consumers live. Eventually, we’ll cover all the island,” says Harry Booluck, director general of the CWA.
But it is clear to water minister Kasenally that it will be impossible to reduce water loss through leaks completely. About 20% of loss is an acceptable international norm.
Mauritius has also devised a master plan for a sustainable water supply, with the aim of harnessing additional water resources to meet the future requirements of all sectors of the island’s economy up to 2040. Many new hotels and industrial parks are being built as the economy develops. They all require water to operate. All possible solutions are being investigated, including seeding clouds and desalination of sea water.
“These are all new sources of water and they require new technology and that means higher costs. The most feasible action, I think, is to prepare ourselves to face an emergency well armed,” Booluck stresses.
Completed in February this year, this document will serve, according to the minister, as a guide to decision-makers for years to come. A national water policy, the first since independence in March 1968, is also under preparation. Under this plan, new reservoirs are being built, waste water is being treated for irrigation purposes and the hotel industry is now desalinating water for the tourism industry.
Work has started on several projects — one reservoir with a capacity of nine million cubic meters at Bagatelle, in the centre of the island, will service Port-Louis. Others are planned for the south and north of the island.
Waste water is no longer being pumped into the lagoon. Since March 2006, Mauritius has been reusing waste water for irrigation purposes. About 40 000 cubic metres of waste water is treated daily and then mixed with raw water and used to irrigate sugar cane and vegetables on 600ha of land at La Ferme, in western Mauritius — this is expected to rise to 70 000 cubic metres soon.
Desalinated water is also being produced by a few hotels that have invested in it since a few years. The Beachcomber Hotel Group invested about $3-million last year to produce about 800 cubic metres of water daily for its two hotels. The Naïade Group is planning to equip all its hotels with a desalination plant by the end of the year.
At the Water Resources Unit, Dhaneshwar Deepchand, the director, does not think that Mauritius is a water-stressed country, though the island collects only about 29% of the rain that falls over it.
“[Mauritius gets] so much rain every year, but most of it flows to the sea through the rivers. The problem is that it does not have enough reservoirs to collect and store it,” he says.
Only one new reservoir, with a capacity of 27-million cubic metres, has been built in Mauritius since independence in 1968. Until new ones are completed several years from now, Deepchand says, it is better to manage demand through sensitisation of the population not to waste this precious commodity.
“Mauritians use too much water — between 200 and 220 litres daily — which is quite high. If we can reduce that by 40, 50 litres, we can easily service the new demands that are coming from the different sectors of the economy,” Deepchand says. — IPS