It is difficult to understand the opposition to prepaid water meters in Harare and other urban areas, since the councils have promised not to raise charges, the only ground that could have justified opposition.The rest of the arguments are simply invalid.
Bad service delivery is acknowledged, but at least with a prepaid meter, the tens of thousands of people who pay each month for water they do not get, or get only once a week, will with the new meters only pay for the water they receive and use.
Retaining the existing meters is not going to improve delivery; since councils get their water fees regardless of what they deliver, or even if they deliver at all, they have no incentive to improve. With a prepaid meter they get nothing unless they deliver water.
And finally the prepaid meters will ensure that the councils are paid for their water, in advance, so all the excuses about lack of chemicals or delayed repairs fall away. With good cash flows they can even borrow money to upgrade supplies quickly.
Of course pressure must be maintained to upgrade service standards, but opposing pre-paid meters is not adding to that pressure.
It is our view that Harare residents in particular should give council’s pilot programme for prepaid water meters the benefit of the doubt than reject the proposal off hand. People should not be misled by claims that the project is completely anti-poor and should therefore be rejected outright.
The argument that the poor will be left dry is not valid because currently there is no official safety net to provide the economically disadvantaged communities with free or subsidised water.
Every household must pay its bills or face disconnection and or prosecution. So how is the current situation pro-poor?
In addition, we believe the current system works in favour of those who dwell behind huge walls and solid gates on extensive yards who simply ignore council workers who come knocking to take meter readings or to disconnect their water supplies.
Often council is forced to leave notices in letter boxes because no one responds to their knocks.
In high density areas, the house is close to the gate or does not even have a proper perimeter fence and council workers will not go away as long as they can discern a sign of life on the targeted premise. We are sure an audit of bad debtors on municipal bills will not show that it is the economically disadvantaged who have been receiving water at the expense of conscientious residents who faithfully meet their obligations each month.
Prepaid systems generally bring discipline as people have to budget for their spending. With prepaid systems residents will be forced to monitor their water use and immediately sort out leaking taps and other problems.
They will also be more stringent about turning taps off when there is no water to avoid loss when supplies are restored.
The same discipline will also have to be practised by the municipality which will have to stop letting treated water gush out of major pipes for days as it can no longer load such losses on the bills of unwary residents. Currently, City of Harare authorities appear very lax about mending or replacing burst water pipes.
They do not feel the impact of that loss.
Yet there have been challenges with bills presented to residents by the municipality. Last year the municipality had to cancel debts for residents in areas that had gone without tap water for long periods, but were still billed as though they were consuming municipal water.
In some cases estimated readings have resulted in sky high bills. With pre-paid meters there is no argument over how much water was used. Many people who have switched to prepaid electricity meters will testify that their bills have come down by appreciable margins.
In cases where there is no power supply, the meter stops altogether and while the client is inconvenienced, they do not have to endure the added burden of paying for a service they did not enjoy.
The separation of the water bill from other charges such as rates, refuse collection and sewerage should also protect residents from unfair penalties. At the moment people who object to paying for such services are coerced to pay anyway, through the threat of disconnection.
But with prepaid water meters residents will be empowered to fight for fair billings knowing that their water supply is assured.
If residents are serious about demanding transparency and accountability from local authorities then prepaid water meters are a step in compelling the authorities to use collected revenue properly.
This should remove current anomalies where municipal authorities spend up to 70 percent of total revenue on remuneration for council officials and a measly 30 percent on service delivery.