By Takura Zhangazha*
The recent announcement by the minster of finance, Patrick Chinamasa, on the compulsory pilot placement of pre-paid water meters is a declaration of intent by government to privatise water and water supply in urban Zimbabwe. It appears rational, even somewhat sensitive, especially when the minster in his made it clear that this rolling out of prepaid water meters will start with industries and what he also referred to as low density areas. The latter are assumed to be the harbingers of the well to do in Zimbabwean society. The given assumption being that those who live in these areas will never share political values with the majority poor who live in what can also be referred to as the ‘high density areas’. Or that they will never mount a protest against these new undemocratic measures.
The intention is to pretend to be sensitive to both assumed low and high density areas urban class interests. That is, to demonstrate some affinity to the moneyed few who would have no problems with paying directly for water so long it is supplied while telling the urban poor that they will be initially treated differently. Or that they will not see prepaid water meters arriving at their doorsteps within the short term period or at least until the initial ‘pilot’ installations are complete.
This is all despite the fact that there have been a number of protests against pre-paid water meters by residents associations. The latter are spread across our cities of Harare, Mutare, Bulawayo, Gweru, Masvingo and the town of Chitungwiza. Though disparate and sometimes in part over reliant on donor funding to function, these associations have been the most legitimate aggregation of popular dissent at the intentions of government to privatise water.
The demonstrations should have been a key sign to central and local government authorities to halt any plans they had already announced over privatizing water. I have also previously written on this blog about the six steps that begin with the pre-paid meter system and eventually end up with the wholesale privatisation of water. Globally there have also been media reports of the problems that come with water privatisation and the overall verdict from those countries that have tried it to those that are considering it, is don't.
The authorities undemocratic insistence is predicated on an argument that rests on the challenge of low revenue collection from ratepayers as opposed to safe access. (Just listen to the radio programmes and adverts sponsored by the Harare City Council for proof of this). Not that citizens of Zimbabwe do not want to pay nominal fees and rates for council services. They do and they have been doing so ever since we inherited urban settlements from the colonial state. And the rates they pay are not only for water supplies but also other services. The major challenge is that a majority of them do not have the readily available or disposable income to pay. That is essentially the heart of the matter.
Implementing the privatization of water will however not resolve this serious challenge of paying water bills by residents and ratepayers. It will essentially mean that already meager resources will no doubt be utilized to purchase bare minimum water supply, a development that is not only dangerous to our collective health but also patently dehumanizing. The end effect will be that water as an historically communal resource will become an individualized one. To the extent that it may sadly become possible for one resident to refuse another a glass of drinking water in order to save their prepaid supplies.
There are however those that will support pre-paid water meters largely out of convenience or with the intention of profiting from the tenders that will accompany their installation. These colleagues do not do their cause any favours through expecting the implementation of the privatization of water to be protected by the heavy hand of the state in suppressing debate and protests in order to ram the policy down the throats of citizens.
Even where they seek to argue that prepaid water meters are about billing, then they should have predicate their arguments less on revenue collected and demonstrate how it essentially benefits access for all regardless of income. Besides, it is not necessarily a pre-paid meter that can accurately measure the amount of water used per household. There are other unexplored and smarter ways of doing so. It is dangerous both politically and in humanitarian terms to subject people to the mantra and tragic reality of , ‘no money, no water’.
There is therefore need for community based organizations to renew their efforts at mobilizing residents for further debate and peaceful protests against the privatization of water. Furthermore this is a debate that should take on a national dimension which must question the broad neo-liberal direction that our national economic planning is taking under the current government. In doing so, we should be guided by the fact that our country, Zimbabwe, is not for sale.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)