Any attempt to construct a new Basseterre High School on the Royal Basseterre Valley Aquifer would be “risky, careless, reckless and downright irresponsible”, these were the words of Mr. Victor Williams, respected architect, businessman and former Chair of the Development Control and Planning Board of St. Kitts from 2003-2015. Mr. Victor Williams was part of a two member panel with Dr. Patrick Martin, physician and former Chief Medical Officer in the federal government from 2004 to 2016. They were interviewed by host Juni Liburd on the “Issues” programme broadcasted on Freedom FM this past Friday, November 23, 2018.
The interview took place in the context of recent statements that were made by the Honourable Sean Richards, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education that plans to construct the school on the Aquifer were “ongoing” and “construction would begin before the end of 2018”. The Minister of Education’s statements have been reinforced by “breaking news” articles published by the St. Kitts-Nevis Times on Thursday this past week purporting that the government of St. Kitts and Nevis was poised and ready to build the new Basseterre High School facility at the controversial location. The St. Kitts-Nevis Times has also circulated aerial pictures of the cleared site and what it claims to be video and pictures of the design plans for the school.
Both experts, with over 70 years of experience between them, are appalled at the complete lack of procedural propriety or transparency in the way that the Harris administration is proceeding with plans. “It is giving me nightmares”, stated Mr. Williams, frankly. While both professionals indicated that they are “in full support” of construction of a new school for the Basseterre High, they stated categorically that they cannot support the process that is currently being taken, and process, they emphasize, determines outcome. “The process to select the best site cannot be supported; the process to select the [Barbados-based] design team Innotech Services Ltd. as the main contractor cannot be supported; the process for financing is questionable; the level of transparency is questionable; and the apparent absence of good governance is questionable”, said Mr. Williams emphatically. “I have some major and serious concerns,” says Mr. Williams who is an alumnus of the Basseterre High School and has been one of its foremost and biggest benefactors. “I have major concerns about the enormous risk posed to the aquifer if the site is used; the irreparable damage that can be done to our largest water source which is already under threat; our history of maintenance or lack thereof; the status of the environmental impact assessment; the provision of access to critical documents; the status of tendering for the project and the project schedule.”
The construction of the Basseterre High School has been a hot button issue for several years, particularly since the Team Unity administration has declared since coming to office its intention to pursue its construction on the sacred, protected site of the Basseterre Valley Aquifer which supplies 2.5 million gallons of water per day to over 50 per cent of the population of St. Kitts and over 100 per cent of the water to the areas of the South East Peninsula, Frigate Bay, Bird Rock and environs. The Harris administration appears to be quite determined to ply ahead with plans for construction in utter disregard for public concerns and in defiance of the procedure established by the Development Control and Planning Act of 2001. The government stubbornly insists on putting politics before the scientific facts set out in numerous reports from reputable institutions regionally and internationally which confirm the need for the aquifer to remain a protected area and national park and which scientifically prove that there is nothing wrong with the current site of the Basseterre High School located at Victoria Road.
When asked why would the Harris administration defy the opinion of the vast majority of Kittitians as well as the recommendations of credible institutions such as the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), the Caribbean Industrial Research Institute (CARIRI), the US-based National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the Germany-based Global Environmental Facility (GEF) and Ocean Technologies, both experts were unanimous in saying that this is being done out of “pure politics”. The “Team Unity made a campaign promise that it would build a school in a different location and the political consideration has clearly overwhelmed the scientific consideration”, said Dr. Martin, who insisted that he was speaking in his individual capacity as “a citizen of the Federation, a tax payer and resident of East Basseterre”.
“Ponds estate is not the correct site for the construction of the Basseterre High School. That area should be protected and protected by the force of arms if necessary” declared Dr. Martin. “The aquifer is the major source of potable water for the entire island of St. Kitts. St. Kitts and Nevis is the smallest country in the Western Hemisphere and is the 7th smallest country in the world. Because of our size we have to lean heavily on science in order to avoid waste, fraud and abuse. The science cannot and does not condone the use of the aquifer for the major undertaking that is intended”, he said.
Both experts insist that the government has an ethical and legal obligation to exercise prudence and look beyond the politics to consider the long term implications for the integrity of the island’s main water supply. “When you consider the long-term risk of constructing the school in that area because of the politics, what would happen if there is any disaster that causes seepage? … The question should be which site would have the least impact on this critical aquifer?…There is a risk factor of 8 or 9 on 10. Proper planning requires that when faced with such a choice, you move away from the option with the greatest risk – that is proper engineering and planning. Why risk it?” said Mr. Williams.
“There is no challenge to the former site that cannot be overcome, so there is no scientific reason why a new and modern facility cannot be constructed on the old site. The Basseterre High School is safe!” insists Dr. Martin.
Both professionals made an impassioned plea for the Harris administration to reconsider its plans and to “put a halt to the process”. “It is not too late….Our water is vitally important. It is never too late to stop an impending disaster” said Mr. Williams.
The views put forward by Dr. Martin and Mr. Williams are in line with the position that the St. Kitts-Nevis Labour Party has championed for a long time. In a townhall meeting held in Basseterre last Thursday evening at the old Girls’ School, the SKNLP pledged to resist any attempt to construct the new Basseterre High School on the Basseterre Valley Aquifer. At this meeting Dr. Geoffrey Hanley, caretaker Candidate for East Basseterre met with rousing applause from the large gathering when he said, “No school will be built on the aquifer! If the bulldozer has to run over me, then to God be the glory. The school will NOT be built!”