AS ZIMBABWE joins the rest of the world in celebrating World Water Day which is commemorated annually on March 22, it should be remembered that major cities in the country such as Harare and Bulawayo have expressed a desire to introduce pre-paid water meters as a means of water management.
It is imperative on this day that recognises water as a human right to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of introducing pre-paid water meters in light of the country’s economic, social and political environment. Will introduction of the gadgets honour the human right to water, or will it flout it?
With pre-paid water meters, users are expected to pay upfront before accessing water services. Water services are excluded for those who fail to pay in the same manner that one cannot access cellular phone services without purchasing airtime or take possession of a vehicle without paying for it.
It is essential to note that commoditisation of water is not a new phenomenon in Zimbabwe. That water is a commodity in Zimbabwe can be exemplified by the fact that it is exchanged at a charge to residents, with failure by users to meet their side of the bargain resulting in disconnection, court summons and seizing of properties.
This is all happening with the current system that utilises conventional meters, under which users are expected to settle bills monthly.
It is the difficulties associated with this system that have resulted in local authorities opting for prepaid water meters.
Studies on introduction of pre-paid meters in Southern Africa indicate that they are often introduced as a panacea to problems of water management such as failure to administer free water, failure to recover costs or debts and failure to control water consumption and wastage.
They are often viewed as a magic bullet for such problems as they can be programmed to disperse a certain amount of free water each month and can be calibrated to deduct a certain percentage of payments made to recover debts while they also offer an incentive for people to pay-up and use water sparingly.
They can even be calibrated to disperse a certain amount of water for emergency purposes.
The trouble, however, is that Zimbabwean local authorities have overlooked the negative implications of prepaid water meters as they are fixated on increasing revenue collection and recovering debt from residents. They have thus disregarded the negative ramifications of using prepaid water meters within poor communities.
If water has to be paid for upfront, poor people may fail to raise the requisite money to purchase water credit leading to their right to access clean potable water being flouted. Effectively therefore, potable water in Zimbabwe will soon be available only for those that can afford it.
The poor will be denied access to water for drinking and sanitation, while rich people will be able to fill swimming pools, wash their fleets of cars, operate fountains and water flower beds.
The major problem is that the majority of Zimbabweans are by definition poor, with large sections of the populace with incomes below the poverty datum line. Worse, safety nets for disadvantaged groupings have ceased to exist following years of political and socio-economic meltdown.
Simply put, the timing for introducing prepaid water meters is wrong. Thus while local authorities are introducing prepaid meters as instruments to ensure cost recovery, they miss the point by focusing on the willingness of residents to pay as opposed to their ability to pay. And in these trying economic times, most Zimbabweans do not have the means to pay, and no amount of persuasion or threats can get them to do so.
Using prepaid water meters will merely cut them off from water services, leaving them vulnerable to diseases such as cholera, dysentery and diarrhoea.
In Madlebe in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, introduction of prepaid water meters led to an outbreak of cholera after poor people were forced to use unsafe water sources as they could not afford to purchase water credit. There is a likelihood of such an occurrence in Zimbabwe if prepaid water meters are adopted.
Yet due to dissatisfaction with current billing systems, many residents, out of desperation, support introduction of the gadgets. Billing systems in most towns and cities are flawed, with residents charged for water they have not consumed.
The Bulawayo City Council for instance is on record as having acknowledged this. Many have thus bought into assertions by local authorities that pre-paid water meters are the solution to the problem. This is not the case.
If local authorities have failed to manage simple conventional metering systems, will they be able to operate the more advanced smart meters? This question is important especially in light of the fact that case studies on use of prepaid water meters in Southern Africa reveal that authorities have had technical nightmares due to frequent break down of the gadgets.
Local authorities should concentrate on rectifying their current billing systems instead of moving to a technology that will disadvantage the poor and that will present them with new technical problems they do not understand.
It would be more prudent to begin use of prepaid meters with a pilot project on commercial entities and companies which often use large volumes of water and account for a large chunk of monies owed to local authorities.
The system can also be tested in higher income residential areas. Only when Zimbabwe has recovered economically should prepaid water meters be considered for all residential areas. Even then, measures should be taken to ensure that the poor are protected through safety nets.
Zibusiso Dube is the information manager at Bulawayo Progressive Residents’ Association. He writes in his personal capacity. He can be contacted on email@example.com