HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsPrepaid water meters costly, ill-conceived

Prepaid water meters costly, ill-conceived

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

NewsDay Editorial

The discussions have sought to respond to questions of suitability of prepaid water meters in Zimbabwe and how local authorities can 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 BCC 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 Ministry of Local Government cancelled all debts residents owed to local authorities.

It is not only BCC that is owed large sums, but other local authorities across the country as well.

BCC and those supporting its move to install prepaid water meters have extolled them as the only way to ensure that residents pay for the water they consume.

They have argued that residents are not paying their bills because they are irresponsible, hence the need for a prepaid metering system.

They have further argued that BCC 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 BCC’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, South Africa, where over 100 people died of cholera after introduction of the meters.

Prepaid water meters would also 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 BCC 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 etc.

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 25 months for BCC to recover its investment in prepaid water meters. Why would the BCC spend $250 to recover $10 a month? The reality is that BCC 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.

And this is before factoring in costs for the “middlemen” who would be selling the water credits. And by the way, residents would still be billed separately for refuse and refuse removal!

Second, the $90 million debt that BCC trumpets as signalling the need for prepaid water meters is itself a contentious figure. Why is this so?

BCC 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 overcharges residents, or to the fact that the city council is in fact not giving residents 5 000 free litres of water.

It is thus questionable that BCC is owed $90 million. The local authority, therefore, cannot be trusted in its claim that residents would receive 5 000 litres of free water under prepaid water meters.
Neither can the premise that BCC is owed $90 million by residents be taken seriously.

In addition, BCC does not have the capacity to manage a prepaid water metering system. Case studies on the use of prepaid water meters in South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia show that the gadgets are prone to breakdowns.

Would the BCC 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.

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