Friday, 19 June 2015

Messrs Kasukuwere and Chombo's Muddied View on Access to Water as a Right.

By Takura Zhangazha*

During a recent and as is wont, rather theatrical question time session in the National Assembly, cabinet ministers Saviour Kasukuwere (environment, water and climate) and Ignatius Chombo (local government) were asked about water.  One of the questions related to government policy on pre-paid water meters and the other concerned the disconnection of water supplies to urban residents respectively. In both of their answers they used the phrase ‘transmission of water’. 

This was in reference to central government policy position that while water is for everyone and also given as a second generation right in the constitution, it is how it arrives at your doorstep that you are being charged for. Hence the opportunistic and deceptive use of the word ‘transmission’. 

For the few citizens on a regular and fixed income, this would appear to make sense. Except for the fact that we are already paying fixed water charges in urban areas. Even if some of us are defaulting, it is not because we want to but because we do not have the money. It would however be an exercise in the dehumanizing of other citizens to then posit that where one is poor, they have no access to water.

The real issue behind the intention by government is to privatise water. That is, to immediately limit access to a public resource on the basis of lack of immediate cash. It also gives private entities the greater and profitable responsibility in delivering water to citizens through outsourcing issues such as the provision of the technology required, its maintenance and servicing and passing on the cost to the end user.

Such a move entails that water becomes a ‘free market’ commodity, which though being one of the most naturally abundant resources, will serve to line the pockets of those that issue tenders and those in close proximity to the former.

Because of this, the end effect of such privatization is to pass the cost on to the consumer/citizen. And if the profit margins fall, it is up to the company to say it has gone out of business and therefore cannot continue to provide the public interest service of clean water to a city or country. Such a development would not easily be similar to for example a bank’s closure, because water is a necessity in the day to day lives of human beings. To subject it to the vagaries of the market is therefore to deny citizens the right to life.

Of course, private interests and citizens in financial comfort zones will make the argument that a prepaid water meter is not the same thing as actual privatization. Truth of the matter is that, in our context, it is.  A pre-paid water meter does not dispense of water if there is no credit to a specific user’s account. As is already the case with electricity pre paid meters, the service ceases to be available immediately where one does not have the money to do so.  The undemocratic flaw there is that where its pre-paid, it means a lack of money leads to no water at all. 

Due to the fact that it is government that has initial control of all water on behalf of the people, there are expectations that policies related thereto are people centered and social democratic. And please note that water, unlike oil or diamonds, is readily available in a country such as ours.  Apart from building dams to store and utilize it for renewable energy, it does not always require the highest resource investments (technology, money) that other natural resources do.

What is required is policy honesty on the part of central and local government.  The problem of payment for water is not that residents are resistant to paying a nominal monthly fee for water treatment and delivery. We have been doing so since our national independence. 

Instead it is the fact that government intends to commoditise a resource that occurs naturally to the extent of ensuring that if you have no money, you will not get it. In the process, and acting on the dehumanizing desperation of many, government will outsource a public service to profit motivated interests.

 Whichever way one wants to look at it, this is a patently undemocratic and inhumane intention on the part of government.

A water meter does not have to be pre-paid nor expensive. It can be a water meter that is efficient for the purposes of recording how much water was used and charging a universally affordable rate for minimum use of the same. To want to stop the taps from running for lack of immediate money in every other household is the stuff that profit mongering over what should be a universal and necessary natural resource is made of. They might as well proceed to place pre-paid meters on rain-clouds. 

Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (