Zimbabwe’s pre-paid water meters dilemma

Zimbabwe’s cities, grappling with ever declining revenue collections, are turning the screws on ratepayers after getting the nod from government to install prepaid water meters.

The majority of the country’s urban councils are wallowing in debt after the government ordered them to write off outstanding bills that accrued between 2009, when Zimbabwe dumped its worthless currency, and June last year.

Although the move to write off outstanding bills was welcomed by many hard-pressed residents, the cities were left unable to pay their workers on time or fund service delivery.

The councils also blame the government directive to write off the bills for increased reluctance by residents to pay their accounts on time.

Bulawayo City Council, which is pioneering the installation of prepaid meters, says residents now owe it over $50 million even after their accounts were cleared to zero a year ago.

Council believes the only way to force ratepayers to honour their bills on time would be the introduction of a system that forces them to pay for their water upfront.

The installation of the meters would begin as a pilot project in the high-density suburb of Cowdray Park. The pilot project would see the installation of about 1,000 prepaid water meters in Cowdray Park before they are taken to other suburbs, according to council plans.

Bulawayo mayor Martin Moyo said he expected the roll out of the meters to begin soon.

“If we see that the gadgets are user-friendly and cannot be manipulated in any way, we will then introduce them throughout the city,” he said.

However, the proposal has drawn the ire of residents and civic groups who say the introduction of prepaid water meters would deprive the majority of the city’s poor residents access to clean water.

The Bulawayo Progressive Residents’ Association (BPRA) has staged protests and petitioned the city council seeking to stop the move.

BPRA’s advocacy and programmes manager Emmanuel Ndlovu said studies on use of prepaid water meters in other parts of the world showed that the system did not work well in poor communities.

“It goes without saying that Cowdray Park residents are mostly people in the lower income bracket, who may not always be able to purchase water on credit,” Ndlovu said. “It is BPRA’s contention that it would thus make more sense to introduce the gadgets in high income areas where people can afford [them].

“The association advises councillors and bureaucrats in the local authority that introduction of prepaid water meters would be retrogressive as it would flout the right to water and convert water into a commodity.”

Civic groups argue that the local authority did not consult residents before making the decision to introduce the prepaid water meters.

A water meter installed by council in the suburb of Cowdray Park. Photo courtesy of Radio Dialogue.
A water meter installed by council in the suburb of Cowdray Park. Photo courtesy of Radio Dialogue.

Other cities such as the capital, Harare, are facing similar resistance from residents.

Hopewell Gumbo, a civic activist based in Harare said the push for the privatisation of water was ill advised.

“There is an astonishing appetite by some sections in local authorities and central government to fast track the privatisation of service provision for personal benefit,” he said. “This is a simple slip back to the ESAP (Economic Structural Adjustment Programme) days and the bomb will soon explode.”

The ESAP period in the 1990s — when Zimbabwe’s government adopted the World Bank and International Monetary Fund prescribed economic policy — is frowned upon by those who see it as the genesis of the economic problems dogging the once prosperous country.

It was during that time when government commercialised or privatised State companies and utilities, which in some cases led to their collapse.

The protests against prepaid water meters, however, are likely to fall on deaf ears as the government has expressed its support for the system.

Environment, Water and Climate minister Saviour Kasukuwere said the government expected all local authorities to install the prepaid water meters in order to generate enough revenue to finance service delivery.

“We need to make payments. We cannot sustain a situation where services are provided and residents do not pay for them,” he said. “I think it’s high time our City Fathers ensured that prepaid meters are installed.”

“I am sure there will be a lot of noise on this one, but we are ready for that,” said Kasukuwere.

“We are not saying people should pay for the water, no, but they should pay for the services.”

The Harare Residents’ Trust says the installation of prepaid water meters is a profit-making venture, which would not address residents’ complaints about poor service delivery.

“Prepaid meters represent the total hijacking of a human right by city bureaucrats who are only concerned with increasing revenue inflows instead of addressing its billing system, which has given residents nightmares,” said HRT director Precious Shumba.

“We reject this apparent profit-making project in its totality and will only express a different view once we have sufficient information on the benefits that will accrue to residents.”

The Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD) argues the prepaid meter system would be a violation of the country’s Constitution.

“Prepaid water meters pervert demand management because when you are unable to afford the charge you are simply cut off, leaving the poor consumers with the bare minimum of water for their daily consumption because they are unable to afford the water they need,” said Percy Mcijo, a ZIMCODD ambassador.

“Prepaid water meters violate the right to water and oppose what is enshrined in Section 77 of the Zimbabwean Constitution that every person has the right to safe, clean and potable water, but with prepaid water meters poor families will be forced to use unsafe water sources once they lose their ability to pay.”

Water provision in Zimbabwe’s urban centers, where residents sometimes go for a week without the commodity, is an emotive issue. In 2008, constant water shortages spawned one of the worst cholera outbreaks that killed 4, 287 people.

 

Kholwani Nyathi is an award winning journalist based in Zimbabwe’s second city of Bulawayo.

Main image: In June Bulawayo residents demonstrated against the introduction of water meters. Photo courtesy of Radio Dialogue.

 

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