Whether or not to install prepaid water meters has been an ongoing debate with authorities arguing that they promote efficiency. This is from the City Council’s point of view. But society and pressure groups feel prepaid meters will be too expensive for the ordinary person who already finds it hard to pay water bills. At times, we get lost in the arguments and forget to question the logic behind an issue: what exactly are prepaid water meters? What impact will they have on us? Who is most affected? What are the benefits to the consumer, if any?
What is a prepaid meter?
A water meter is a device which measures the amount of water supplied to your home. Meters can be prepaid, or post-paid. Currently, meters are post-paid. With pre-paid water meters, the user purchases and pays for a given amount of water in advance. This means that water use is regulated according to your payment and if for some reason you cannot afford to ‘top-up’ and add more credit just like you do with airtime, then your water supply is simply cut off. Plans by Harare City Council to install prepaid water meters have been met with resistance by residents who argue that the move will not help improve the supply of potable water, but instead likely to increase the risk of health hazards. This is because when people are cut off, they have no choice but to resort to dirty water sources which will spread water-borne diseases, such as cholera and typhoid
In areas like Mabvuku and Tafara where some children have never seen running water their entire lives, the idea of pre-paid water meters is a joke. Many residents who live here have gone for years without tap water. Commenting on the issue, one resident from the area who identified herself as “Amai Tsitsi” said the idea is foreign to her as there can be no talk of water meters when the water itself is non-existent. “We use borehole water, which we walk long distances to fetch. We end up spending hours queued up. I used to send my daughter to fetch water but many things take place as these water points, especially at dusk. Young men who frequent these water points end up impregnating the young girls. We have many cases of babies without fathers conceived at these water points.’’
Lack of Water Particularly Affects Women
Gender constructed roles place the responsibility on women to fetch and provide water for their families on a daily basis as it is a basic need. Therefore, any challenges arising from water collection directly affects them. Speaking on the issue, Combined Harare Residents Association (CHRA) Programs Manager, Tendai Machada says, “Women will be more affected by prepaid meters due to their tripartite roles which are the community, production and reproduction”.
There have been cases where young girls and even married women develop relationships with the local young men who spend their time sitting idly at these water points offering assistance to the women as they fetch water. For other young people, the water points have become a meeting point with their partners as a lot of time is spent on this task – sometimes hours on end stretching late into the night queued in long lines. This has culminated into these relationships leading to sexual encounters. In some cases, acts of rape or sexual assault occur. These cases usually go unreported. No one comes out to say my child or sister was a victim for fear of stigmatisation, although it is general knowledge among residents.
A whole host of other social problems have come about as a result of the unavailability of water. In some families, people are now visiting the bathroom at the same time to cut out on flushing water. This has upset an understood moral perspective as fathers and daughters now have to check with each other whether everyone has gone to relieve themselves or not. Also, families with boreholes end up selling water to those who have their water cut off causing bad feeling and disharmony. For girls who have reached puberty and women, not having a reliable water supply is particularly harsh as they experience discomfort and unease during their monthly cycle.
Government Responsibility to Provide Clean Water
Chapter 4, section 77 of our Constitution states thats:
“Every person has the right to safe, clean and potable water….and the State must take reasonable legislative and other measures….to achieve the progressive realisation of this right.”
Additionally, the government has committed itself – through the economic blueprint, ZIMASSET – to improve access to water in order to enhance the standard of living of citizens for the development of the country. Water is a natural resource essential to human life and it is feared that prepaid water meters will pave the way for the privatisation of water making it accessible to a few to the detriment of all.
Prepaid water meters have been vehemently rejected in many sectors with civil society group Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD) among others, advocating for their rejection. ZIMCODD believes that families who find themselves unable to pay for prepaid water services, will be increasingly forced to use alternative, un-vetted sources of water. Women and children fall into traditional roles as water procurers and the time and effort taken to do so, undermines educational and gender equality gains that can be reached through simple improvements in water supply. Communities traditionally share the burden of providing access to water for all. With the implementation of prepaid water meters, water becomes an individualised marketed commodity and social problems in the communities erupt when families run out of water.
Tinashe Gumbo, the ZIMCODD Advocacy and Research Officer held a public meeting together with the Harare Mayor to discuss the people’s stand on water meters. He said that prepaid water meters fundamentally change the social relationship households have traditionally had with water providers. They remove all safeguards for the consumer. The relationship between the consumer and the water provider is limited as the service provider is not available for any negotiations regarding faulty billing and disconnections. Households are forced to self-disconnect when they run out of water because there is no dispute mechanism in place to challenge the cut off procedure.
Confusion surrounds the issue of prepaid water meters with authorities at Harare’s Town House issuing conflicting statements on their position.
Harare mayor Ben Manyenyeni says the programme is an effective cost-recovery exercise emphasising the need to advance with technology and that deliberations are still underway.’’The truth is that whichever option we settle for, we will have dissenting voices because the house is divided over the matter,’’ he said.
Town clerk Tendai Mahachi stated that residents owe the Council millions and by installing prepaid meters, much-needed money will be collected. He maintains that prepaid water meters are coming and a pilot project will soon be rolled out. Harare City Council is expected to save over $1 million per month, in water purification chemicals and electricity with the introduction of prepaid water meters, according to Harare town council.
As a way forward government has been urged to ensure the mobilisation and utilisation of our national resources to achieve universal access to water as well as engage dialogue between local authorities and the public on the prepaid water meters issue.