Dominican Republic, the country of bottled water

Imagine a country where nine out of 10 city dwellers use bottled water as a source of drinking water. This is not a desert area, or an area with low rainfall. It is the Dominican Republic.

In this Caribbean nation, while access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation is almost universal, service is deficient and very limited. Six out of 10 urban households and half of rural households in this Caribbean country report intermittent water supply. More than two-thirds rely on tanks, pumps or cisterns to store water for daily consumption.

But that’s not all: the poor quality of service forces Dominicans to resort to bottled water, which is more expensive, taking a heavy toll on their pockets.

The situation has been worsening over the years: in 1990, 13% of the urban population and 0.7% of the rural population used bottled water as a source of drinking water. In 2016, according to the latest record, that figure amounted to 89% of the urban population and 68% of the rural population.

And the poor suffer the most from this torment. 40% of the most vulnerable households spend 12% of their income to purchase water and, of that percentage, 95% is for bottled water that they buy from private companies.

“According to global research, it is reasonable to spend 5% of household expenditures on water and sanitation services,” says Craig Kullmann, a water and sanitation specialist at the World Bank.

In addition, two-thirds of Dominican households do not have sewage connections for wastewater treatment, which increases the threat of disease due to groundwater contamination.

Vicious circle
According to Kullman, the Dominican water and sanitation sector is caught in a vicious circle. The expert participated in an analysis of the country’s public water and sanitation services as part of a public spending review conducted by the World Bank at the government’s request.

“Water and sanitation utilities’ revenues tend to grow more slowly than their costs because of their intention not to charge users for increases in energy, chemical inputs and personnel, and this reduces the funds available for maintenance,” he explains.

This, according to the expert, is the cause of breaks in the pipes and the resulting water leaks.

Thus, the service worsens and it becomes even more difficult for the company to increase its billing and collection revenues by demanding payment from dissatisfied users. The situation is further aggravated by illegal connections and excessive use of water for agricultural or inappropriate purposes, without actual consumption being measured and billed.

Water supply to households becomes erratic and this erodes confidence in public providers and discourages households from paying for them, which lowers collection rates, and in turn, destabilizes the financial position of companies to invest, according to Kullmann.

Today, unbilled water ranges from 45% to 95%, depending on suppliers. But, “given the low tariffs and some inefficiencies in spending, even if the companies billed 100% of the water, they would not be able to balance their finances either,” he argues.

For this reason, the central government makes transfers to the providers so that they can meet their expenses. Although -says the expert- this generates a false sense of financial security that reduces the motivation to seek greater efficiency in the operation and maintenance of services.

Official data between 2014 and 2018 show that the Dominican state transferred US$80 million annually to public companies to cover current expenses, resulting in a very heavy burden on national finances and, paradoxically, undermining the improvement of services.

“This must be changed if the population is to enjoy good services,” Kullmann emphasizes.

The debate on drinking water and sanitation reforms, which has been going on for two decades, has been fruitless. In the meantime, the cost of this deficient service has become extremely high for both consumers and the government.

Translated with (free version)

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