Major cities in Zimbabwe are moving to install prepaid water meters, despite resistance from residents’ associations and civil society organisations. The citizens argue that prepaid meters deny poor people access to water – a right that is enshrined in the constitution.
After the capital Harare and the second largest city, Bulawayo, local authorities such as Mutare, Gweru, Gwanda, Masvingo, Victoria Falls and Chitungwiza are also considering introducing prepaid meters. Local authorities expect improved revenue collection and by extension an improvement in service delivery, as well as reduced wastage and water treatment costs.
The move has proved unpopular, particularly in Bulawayo, where residents have held public demon- strations in protest. Residents first protested against the decision on November 14, 2014 when they presented a petition to the council.
On September 15, 2015 about a thousand residents marched to Stanley Square, where they were addressed by church, civil society and residents’ association leaders, according to website Southern Eye.
Local authorities say residents’ unwillingness to pay for services has resulted in income backlogs that have caused local authorities to function less effectively. The municipalities are following in the footsteps of the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (Zesa), which introduced prepaid meters in 2012 to curb free electricity usage. At the time, Zesa was owed $1 billion by its domestic and industrial customers.
As of August 31 last year, residents, government and commercial debtors owed the Harare City Council (HCC) $380m for services such as refuse collection and water and sewer reticulation, according to council minutes.
As of the same date, the Bulawayo City Council (BCC) was owed $112.5m. The backlog only started on June 30, 2013, when the government cancelled all ratepayers’ debts to municipalities ahead of the 2013 general elections in what was seen as a populist move by the ruling Zanu-PF party to woo urban voters. Towns around the country lost a combined $2 billion in revenue.
Harare is currently installing prepaid meters in a pilot project. The council aims to roll out the project citywide over a period of seven to ten years. In Bulawayo, a pilot project is being carried out in a high-density suburb,mayor Martin Moyo confirmed.
Esther Chimanikire, a lobby and advocacy officer with the Harare Residents’ Trust (HRT), says the plan was introduced without public consultation. Prepaid meters would mean poor residents would be unable to access water, which would deny them a constitutional right that they enjoy “irrespective of economic and social status”, Chimanikire says.
The prepaid water meter system will also force poor families to use unsafe water sources, since they would be unable to pay for municipal water, Chimanikire says. The Bulawayo Progressive Residents’ Association (BPRA) and civil society groups have formed an umbrella organisation, the Right To Water Campaign, to oppose the prepaid water meters.
The campaign said many residents would be unable to buy enough water units to meet basic health requirements.
Because of Zimbabwe’s deplorable economic situation, most of the city’s residents are unemployed, it argues, while those who are employed often earn salaries below the poverty line.
In October 2015 the International Monetary Fund painted a bleak future for the Zimbabwean economy.
“Growth has slowed, unemployment is rising and increasingly there is a shift in economic activity to the informal sector,” the IMF said. At the end of June 2015, the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries announced that capacity utilisation in the manufacturing sector stood at 39 percent.
Many workers have lost jobs due to retrenchments and company closures. On July 17 last year, a Supreme Court ruling allowing companies to retrench workers without severance packages, resulted in 30 000 job losses across all sectors, according to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Unions. (The relevant law has since been amended.)
The Right to Water Campaign says research on the use of prepaid water meters in southern Africa shows that the system tends to fail in poor communities, often resulting in poor people using unsafe sources of water, which in turn often causes outbreaks of disease. The introduction of prepaid water meters in Madlebe, KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa) in 2000, for instance, resulted in an outbreak of cholera. Dozens of people lost their lives.
Harare City spokesperson Michael Chideme said that the city had no intention of calling a halt to the plan, despite objections from residents. “We expect the pilot stage to be completed by March next year before we roll it out throughout the city,” he said. “The pilot stage will allow us to see how the meters work and help us to decide which type of meters to use.”
Pumping water to homes around the city comes at a cost, he added. The prepaid system was the only way the council would be able to generate income that would enable the continuation of the service. The prepaid system would also encourage residents to save water, because it would require them to monitor their usage against their expenditure.”There is no room for free riders in water,” he said.
Moyo said that Bulawayo had resolved to introduce prepaid water meters, but would only roll out the project citywide if the pilot project proved successful. He asked residents “to be patient” while the city carried out the study. “We are saying let us see whether the pre-paid water meters are feasible,” Moyo said. “If they are not, then they will be dropped.”
But Bulawayo residents and civil society organisations are convinced the city intends to implement the project anyway, as resolved at a full council meeting in 2013. Meanwhile, HRT says HCC’s decision to go ahead with the project confirms the city is “insensitive” to the residents’ concerns. The local authorities’ resistance to pressure from residents and civil society has the government’s blessing.
Then-minister of environment, water and climate Saviour Kasukuwere, who now does local government, told parliament on June 17 last year prepaid meters were essential for effective service delivery. “Water provision requires somebody to pay for it,” he said.
“Water is a human right, but it is the transmission that must be paid for. Prepaid water meters [are] really meant to support councils and service providers to have enough capacity to service the communities with water.”
Former local government minister Ignatious Chombo, now home affairs minister, urged local authorities to consult residents and offer them payment plans.
“Yes, water is a right, but the water we get in our homes is conveyed 89km and you need power,” said Chombo. “It is conveyed through pipes, is stored in tanks and is purified before you get it, so there is some cost to it.”
The “water war” continues.
Owen Gagare, based in Harare, is the chief reporter for the Zimbabwe Independent, a business weekly. Passionate about humanitarian issues, Owen has previously worked for two national daily newspapers, News Day and the Chronicle.