Crisis in the Caribbean

Melle writes*

St. Maarten is a beautiful holiday destination for many. With its alluring beaches, fantastic nightlife, many attractions and of course the crystal-clear ocean surrounding the island, it seems like a surreal place to a lot of visitors.  Unfortunately, its true nature does not match its promise of paradise. It faces many challenges, such as hurricanes, political instability, economic hardships, and infrastructural failures. And at the moment, it also faces an unforeseen challenge, namely a billing error within the one and only drinking water company.

GEBE is the sole supplier of drinking water on St. Maarten. They buy water from the three desalination plants (owned by Seven Seas Water) and transport it to their storage tanks.  From there, the water is brought to households through pipes that criss-cross the island.

GEBE’s pricing is progressive, meaning the more you use the more you pay: “If a household uses 3 cubic meters of water, they are charged NAF 2.50 per cubic meter, an additional 7 cubic meters will then cost them NAF 5.50 per cubic meter while anything over that amount will cost the customer NAF 6.00 per cubic meter.”  To put this into perspective, NAF 6.00 is equal to approximately 3 euros. This might not seem a lot, but 3 euros is a lot for most of the population, and it is in general a lot for a cubic meter of water.

Besides this “choice” from the drinking water monopolist GEBE, customers can get water from rain (not readily available), discharges (not drinkable), or bottled water (crazy expensive).

Since March 2022, GEBE has been issuing correct bills to only 50% of its customers due to a “cyber event that disrupted its computer systems”. To the other 50%, they have sent nothing or incorrect bills. GEBE has given limited explanations and has decided to “solve” the problem by sending all bills since March 2022 at once. Customers who have not paid anything for 18 months now face massive charges.

To make matters worse, the different water pricing mechanisms are not taken into account when merging the bills. Normally, if customers use 3 cubic meters of water, they will pay less per cubic meter than if they used 10. But this concept is completely ignored with merging.  Instead, GEBE’s customers pay the top price for every cubic meter of water they used over the past 20 months. For the 19% of locals living below the poverty line, this is simply not possible.

Bottom Line: Many of St. Maarten’s residents face a billing (or payment) crisis due to GEBE’s mistake and a “solution” that is causing financial pain for everyone, but especially the poorest.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “Crisis in the Caribbean”

  1. Hey Melle, your post really opened my eyes to the challenges facing St. Maarten, especially with the billing crisis caused by GEBE’s mistake. It’s sad to see how this is affecting residents, particularly those below the poverty line.

    I’m curious to know if there have been any community-driven efforts to support those struggling with the sudden and massive charges. Are there local initiatives or organizations stepping in to provide assistance or resources during this challenging time?

    Also, given the unique circumstances, I wonder if there’s been any response from local authorities in terms of addressing the billing error and its impact on residents. Sint Marteen being a a consistuent country of the Netherlands, is there no intervention happening? The Netherlands is not a country who lacks resources, i am surpised that they are left on their own for this issue. Are there discussions or actions being taken to rectify the situation or prevent similar issues in the future?

    Your blogpost definetly highlights the problem, and I’d like to understand more about the community’s response and any potential steps being taken at different levels to alleviate the financial strain on residents.

  2. Hey Melle, I find it crazy how failing computer systems can be this disruptive and essesntially turn the whole company on its head. I think it shows quite well how impactfull cyber attacks can be, even though this was not a cyber attack if I understoof correctly. I am also astounded how there solutions was just to bill everything at once and not stick to their pricing model in any way.
    Interesting story!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *