This article was originally published in Africa in Fact, the journal of Good Governance Africa.
By Owen Gagare
Major cities in Zimbabwe, including the capital Harare and the second largest city, Bulawayo, are moving to install prepaid water meters despite resistance from residents’ associations and civil society organizations, which argue that prepaid meters deny poor people access to water—a right, they say, that is enshrined in the constitution. Local authorities such as Mutare, Gweru, Gwanda, Masvingo, Victoria Falls, and Chitungwiza are also considering introducing prepaid meters. Local authorities say they will result in 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 demonstrations in protest. Residents first demonstrated against the decision on Nov. 14, 2014, when they presented a petition to council officials at the city hall. On Sept. 15, 2015, about a thousand residents marched to Stanley Square, where they were addressed by church, civil society, and residents’ association leaders, according to a report by Zimbabwean news website Southern Eye. No protests have been held in Harare.
Local authorities say residents’ unwillingness to pay for services has resulted in income backlogs that have caused local authorities to function less effectively. They are following in the footsteps of the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority, 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 Aug. 31 last year, residents, government and commercial debtors owed $380 million to the Harare City Council for services such as refuse collection and water and sewer reticulation, according to council minutes. As of the same date, the Bulawayo City Council was owed $112.5 million, also according to council minutes. This backlog ran back only as far as June 30, 2013, when the government cancelled 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. Local authorities around the country lost a combined $2 billion in revenue.
The HCC is currently installing prepaid meters in the central business district and Avenues area, as a pilot project. Following this, the council aims to roll out the project citywide over a period of seven to 10 years, according to HCC spokesperson Michael Chideme. In Bulawayo, a pilot project is being carried out in a high-density suburb, Cowdray Park, the city’s mayor, Martin Moyo, confirmed.
Esther Chimanikire, a lobby and advocacy officer with the Harare Residents Trust, says the plan was introduced without public consultation. Prepaid meters would mean that 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 HCC’s plan was little more than a cover-up of the municipality’s historical failure to deliver basic services.
In Bulawayo, the Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association and civil society groups have formed an umbrella organization, the Right to Water Campaign, to oppose the water meters. The activity has included door-to-door campaigns, road shows, dialogue meetings, and demonstrations aimed at informing residents of the implications of the plan.
In a letter dated July 2, 2014, and addressed to the late former town clerk, Middleton Nyoni, and copied to Moyo, the Right to Water 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 were unemployed, it argued, while those who were employed earned salaries below the poverty line.
In October 2015, in a review of the Zimbabwean government’s economic reforms, 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 organization said. At the end of June 2015, the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries announced that capacity utilization 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 (a province in South Africa) in 2000, for instance, resulted in an outbreak of cholera. Dozens of people lost their lives.
Harare City spokesperson Michael Chideme told Africa in Fact 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 came 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 told Africa in Fact 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 organizations are convinced the city intends to implement the project anyway. It resolved to do so at a full council meeting in 2013, they say. Meanwhile, HRT says HCC’s decision to go ahead with the project confirms that the city is “insensitive” to the residents’ concerns. “The council continues to ignore our [input],” says Chimanikire. The local authorities’ resistance to pressure from residents and civil society organizations has the government’s blessing, though government officials urge local authorities to consult residents.
Local government minister Saviour Kasukuwere, then environment, water, and climate minister, told parliament on June 17 last year that prepaid meters were essential for effective service delivery. “Water provision …requires somebody to pay for it,” he said. “We agree that 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[ir] communities with water.”
Former local government minister Ignatious Chombo, now home affairs minister, also told parliament on June 17 last year that he supported the move, though he urged local authorities to consult residents and afford them opportunities to make payment plans. “Yes, water is a right, but the water that we get in our homes is conveyed 89 kilometers and you need power,” said Chombo. “It is conveyed through pipes, is stored in various tanks and is purified before you get it, so there is some cost to it.” The “water war” between residents and local authorities continues.
Owen Gagare is the chief reporter for the Zimbabwe Independent, a business weekly. He has previously worked for two national daily newspapers, News Day and the Chronicle.
[Photo courtesy of damien_farell]