By Takura Zhangazha*
Last week the Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association (BUPRA) held a march, together with its civil society partners, against the proposals by the Bulawayo City Council to introduce prepaid water meters. The mayor of the city, Councillor Martin Moyo, was reported in a local daily as saying he had no choice but to implement central government’s directive in order to fundraise for water treatment chemicals among other things.
The minister of Environment and Water Savious Kasukuwere weighed in with what appeared more a declaration than a measured response by saying that there is no going back on prepaid water meters as a broad government policy even in the wake of demonstrations by Bulawayo residents.
The intention of government is to privatise water. Not, as the mayor of Bulawayo assumes, to merely fund raise in order to get water treatment chemicals. The truth of the matter is that the mere act of placing a pre-paid water meter on every household in Cowdray Park and Hlalani Kuhle as ‘pilot projects’ is an act that seeks to exclude the poor from access to water.
But this needs further explanation. Government, in this case, the Ministry of Environment and Water and the Bulawayo City Council, are using a model that has been proven to be a failure across many parts of the developing world. In these models, the government decides to outsource water supplies to private players. So this generally takes six undemocratic and profit driven steps.
Step Number 1: Government starts with pre-paid water meters. These will be supplied by (most likely South African) private companies to government at a cost. The latter will work out a payment plan with the private company depending on its ability to charge specific rates that cover both the actual costs of supplying water and purchasing the prepaid water meters. So the cost of installing of the prepaid meter will be the burden of the residents and ratepayers.
Step Number 2: These are just the initial stages. In the aftermath of the purchase and supply of the prepaid water meters, government then argues it cannot maintain these meters. It sub- contracts the same or another private company to maintain them while again passing on the cost to the resident and taxpayer.
Step Number 3: At this stage the resident and taxpayer now has a triple cost. Firstly , that of paying for water as was always the case, secondly that of paying for the prepaid meter (which can be once off- or negotiated payment plan) and thirdly that of paying, in levied form, for the maintenance, repair of the prepaid water metering system. Put more simply, the initial assumptions that pre-paid water meters lead to cheaper and more readily available water for ordinary residents, will evidently become the myth that they are.
Step Number 4: The fourth stage that normally follows is that government then decides that it wants to privatise the water supply system (pipes, reservoirs etc). It approaches companies to lay pipes in what it calls public private partnerships and these companies then get first call at actually maintaining or owning the pipes. That cost is factored into the levies and commissions that are deducted every time a resident pays for water. The cost per unit increases and families begin to ration water.
Step Number 5: the entire billing system and maintenance of clean water supplies becomes the preserve of the rich and well off with costs being determined solely for profit. Government will be getting its commissions/levies and taxes from the private companies who in turn pass on the cost to the resident and ratepayer in order to maintain their profit levels. Prepaid meters stop getting ‘juiced’ for lack of income and water becomes a commodity and not a right.
Step Number 6: Majority urban poor turn to unclean sources of water, ‘’bootlegging’’ water and in the final analysis will no longer be able to ask their neighbours for a free glass of the life- giving liquid.
*Takura Zhangazha writes in his individual capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)