Prepaid water meters costly, ill conceived

SINCE Bulawayo residents took to the streets demonstrating against a move by the Bulawayo City Council to introduce prepaid water meters in November 2014, the issue of water management has become a major topic of debate.

Discussions have sought to respond to questions of suitability of prepaid water meters in Zimbabwe and how local authorities could maintain a level of viability and increase their revenue collection in the face of failure by residents to settle their bills.

This has come at a time when the council has revealed that it is owed $90 million in unpaid bills, a considerable increase from the $50 million that it was owed in June 2013 when the Local Government ministry cancelled all debts residents owed to local authorities. It is not only the Bulawayo Council that is owed large sums, but local authorities across the country.

The council and those supporting its move to install prepaid water meters have extolled them as the only way to ensure residents pay for the water they consume. They have argued residents are not paying their bills because they are irresponsible, hence, the need for a prepaid metering system.

pre-paid-water-meters

pre-paid-water-meters

They have further argued that the council would give residents free 5 000 litres of water, hence, even people living in poverty would be able to meet their minimum requirements for water.

The government, through the ministers of Water and Local Government has supported moves to introduce the prepaid water meters, even urging local authorities to do so urgently as a means to ensure their viability.

While acknowledging the advantages of prepaid water systems and recognising the importance of ensuring stable revenue flows to local authorities, it is, however, imperative to once again point out that all perceived advantages of prepaid water meters lose meaning in the Zimbabwean context.

Also, much of the council’s arguments for their installation, and their counter arguments against residents are flawed.

Last year, this writer detailed why prepaid water meters were unsuitable in Zimbabwe. The argument was that they would lead to the poor having their right to water flouted as they would not be able to purchase water upfront all the time.

This would be made worse by unavailability of safety nets for the poor, within the context of high unemployment, failure by companies to pay employees and continued deindustrialisation.

In addition, it was argued that the meters would lead to outbreaks of diseases as happened in Madlebe in KwaZulu-Natal where over 100 people died of cholera after introduction of the meters.

Prepaid water meters would worsen inequalities in society, allowing rich people to use as much water as they want, while poor people would be forced to go without. This article does not seek to defend arguments made previously, but to add on other reasons against prepaid meters.

First, information at hand suggests that the council has not done its homework on prepaid water meters. In an average residents’ water bill, water consumption takes up less than 50% of the bill, the rest being taken by refuse collection, sewerage.

Thus, for the average bill of about $20, only $10 (this being generous) is for water. Now, a single prepaid water meter can cost as much as $250. This means that it would take twenty five months for the council to recover its investment in prepaid water meters.

Why would the council spend $250 to recover $10 a month? The reality is that the council has not thought about this. When it finally realises it, the cost would be transferred to residents through an increase in the cost of water.

This is before factoring in costs for the “middlemen” who would be selling the water credits.

By the way, residents would still be billed separately for refuse and sewerage removal!

Second, the $90 million debt that the council trumpets as signalling the need for prepaid water meters is itself a contentious figure. Why is this so? The Council claims to be giving people 5 000 litres of free water each month. This equates to 25 drums.

How then are residents owing as much as $1 000? How much water would they have consumed to reach that figure? By all indications, it would be impossible for a resident to have acquired that huge a bill between July 2013 and December 2014 even if that resident had not made a single payment in that period.

This either points to a flawed billing system that over-charges residents, or to the fact that the city council is in fact not giving residents 5000 free litres of water.

It is thus questionable that the council is owed $90 million. The local authority therefore cannot be trusted in its claim that residents would receive 5000 litres of free water under prepaid water meters. Neither can the premise that the council is owed $90 million by residents be taken seriously.

In addition, the council does not have the capacity to manage a prepaid water metering system. Case studies on use of prepaid water meters in South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia show that the gadgets are prone to breakdowns. Would the council that often fails to timely attend to sewage bursts and leaking pipes be able to adequately respond to frequent breakdown of prepaid water meters?

Does it even have adequate skilled personnel to handle the smart meters? Would it be able to deal with instances of vandalism of water pipes as those who cannot afford water seek other means to access it?

Perhaps the local authority intends to hire a private company to manage the gadgets, but that would surely be costly and further add to arguments against prepaid water meters.

Contextually, it is important to realise that the government has been failing to subsidise local authorities’ service delivery costs as it has been unable to make disbursements due to low revenue streams to the treasury. What we are witnessing now is the government urging local authorities to transfer all costs of service delivery to residents.

Essentially, the government is abdicating on its role as the primary duty bearer in water provision, pushing the burden to citizens, who will have to pay more.

This increasing privatisation and commodification of water will lead to poor people being unable to afford it, denying them their right to water.

The privatisation will require residents to pay twice for water services – firstly through taxes that are disappearing into government coffers and not returning as subsidies to local authorities, and secondly through unsubsidised water bills to cover full costs of services that are inflated to recover the cost of installing the prepaid metering system, the cost of the middlemen selling the water and the cost of the private company enlisted to manage the prepaid metering system.

It is clear that the prepaid water meters project proposed by the council is not a viable solution to Bulawayo’s water management challenges as it is costly and ill-conceived.

It is imperative to note that this whole debate taking place around prepaid water meters is one that should have taken place before the council unilaterally resolved to install the gadgets.

Had the council consulted widely before designing the project, it may have been able to come up with a better solution to Bulawayo’s water management challenges.

It would thus be in order for the council to rescind its decision to install prepaid water meters in Bulawayo and begin widespread consultations to find a workable solution to the city’s water management challenges.

Zibusiso Dube is the information manager at Bulawayo Progressive Residents’ Association. He writes in his personal capacity. He can be contacted on dubezibusiso@gmail.com

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