No to pre-paid water meters

PRE-PAID water meters have generated a lot of debate among various stakeholders, with Bulawayo residents seemingly opposed to their installation yet the Bulawayo City Council and government have remained adamant, insisting there is no going back on the project.

Weekend Post reporter Jeffrey Muvundusi (JM) spoke to Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association’s coordinator Roderick Fayayo (RF) on a variety of issues surrounding these controversial gadgets. Below are the excerpts of the interview.

JM: We have seen yet another demonstration from Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association in conjunction with other like-minded organisations, what is really inspiring you to continue pushing against the introduction of water metres by the city council?

RF: It is because of an understanding of the harm these meters will cause in our society, as they have done in other countries. Firstly, studies show that the cost recovery potential of prepaid water meters is not as straight forward as the Bulawayo City Council believes. If you consider the cost of the meter, which is estimated at $250, the short lifespan of the meters, frequent breakdowns, the expected software maintenance and battery replacements, prepaid water meters do not result in cost recovery, but are rather very expensive and not worth the investment. Second, water privatisation has failed worldwide in developing countries, often leading to lack of water access and sanitation for the poor. When prepaid water meters are in use, the poor are essentially denied water as they cannot always afford to purchase water credit in advance.

Third, prepaid water meters are a threat to public health. In South Africa, they precipitated the worst cholera outbreak. Prepaid water meters also destroy social capital, especially in poor traditional societies. How do communities conduct themselves in times of bereavement or weddings? Prepaid water meters also worsen inequalities. The rich can have as much water as they want, while the poor go without.

JM: Would you say you are in the right direction in as far as influencing the city fathers to rescind their decision to install prepaid water meters?
RF: Yes, we are in the right direction, firstly because we have right on our side, and we are on the side of the majority – the poor, the unemployed, the orphaned, the widowed, the retired, the chronically ill and the disabled who understand the negative implications that prepaid water meters would bring. In the long run, we believe the numbers we have conscientised and represented on the issue of prepaid water meters will prove a force to reckon with in getting the Bulawayo City Council to rescind its decision. We have also penned a comprehensive position paper that we believe sheds light into the folly of opting for prepaid water meters. So yes, we believe we are in the right direction.
However, our intention is to continue until the Bulawayo City Council, other councils across Zimbabwe and the government itself realise that prepaid water meters are not the solution to water management problems facing Zimbabwean local authorities.

JM: With the city council having already made its position that they are not going back on the programme and as if that is not enough the government has openly came out in full support of these controversial gadgets where do you see yourself in this whole circus?
RF: We see ourselves continuing to pursue our agenda as a watchdog on the operations of public officials and as purveyors of the interests of the residents of Bulawayo, particularly the poor and disenfranchised. Our vision is not based on the weaknesses of our leaders who may stick to anti-poor and imposed policies, but it is derived from a longing for a better Bulawayo and Zimbabwe at large and from a genuine quest to amplify the voices of the residents.

JM: As if that is not enough, the Harare City Council has just revealed that it will be installing prepaid water meters in selected parts of the city in a trial run that will lead to a city-wide roll-out of the $50 million project in March next year, is this not a sign that after all, your efforts are bound to fail with the capital city taking a lead.
RF: It is quite saddening and appalling that we live in times when the pleas of the masses may fall on deaf ears. But we ultimately cannot lose because even if prepaid water meters are installed, they will fail on their own. They have failed in Manila, Nigeria, Ghana, Phiri and Orange Farm in Soweto, Madlebe in KwaZulu Natal to name but a few places.
They have led to riots, people have ripped prepaid water meters off the ground and tossed them in front of local authority’s offices; prepaid water meters have caused cholera, killing many. So ultimately even if they are put in place, with Zimbabwe’s economic situation they will only lead to a potable water and sanitation crisis that could be bad for our societal harmony and peace. The prepaid water meters would eventually be taken down. But that’s the long and painful road, it would be better for our country and better for the poor and disenfranchised if the prepaid water policy was abandoned now.

JM: Unlike in Bulawayo where the pilot project is set to be done in Cowdray park’s Hlalani Kuhle several kilometres outside the city centre, the Harare city is talking of 2 000 prepaid water meters on the trial run to be installed in the Avenues, the central business district, industrial areas and selected suburbs, what does this mean to your campaign.
RF: It has little bearing on our campaign. Our campaign is against forced installation of prepaid water meters. We represent the rights of the poor and disenfranchised to clean water and sanitation. If there are people who afford in areas such as the Avenues, and they want prepaid water meters, it would be fair to give them. But let us not force this system upon poor people who will not be able to purchase water credit.
It would however be prudent to caution that in the current economic situation characterised by high unemployment, massive retrenchments and poor remuneration of those who are employed, even areas thought to be upper class may have challenges with prepaid water meters.

JM: How is your relationship with other residents association in other cities and towns, do you share the same line of thinking regarding the prepaid water meters?
RF: We have collaborated in many activities on prepaid water meters with residents associations from across Zimbabwe – Harare, Mutare, Chitungwiza, Lupane, Victoria Falls, Masvingo, Kadoma and Gweru, to name but a few.
There is a one hundred percent consensus that prepaid water meters are not suitable to Zimbabwe’s socio-economic and cultural setting and would lead to untold suffering for citizens. Even at our demonstration last Friday, we had colleagues from other residents associations from Masvingo, Chitungwiza and Kadoma giving solidarity messages.

JM: In case, you eventually lose the battle and the water metres are finally installed does it mean that, that will be the end of your campaign against these metres, what will be the next action?
RF: Even if the Bulawayo City Council and other local authorities go ahead and install prepaid water meters, our campaign against the discriminatory devices will continue. Worse, it will not be the end but the beginning because the prepaid water meter would soon be abolished after everything that we are currently saying about them becomes apparent.

JM: Some have accused you as an organisation of pursuing this matter simply to get donour funding, can you clarify that?
RF: I do not see any logical link between engaging in this campaign and implications for accessing donor fund. In any case, the push is being done by the wretched, the elderly women and men, the unemployed youths and the disenfranchised people pushing against prepaid water meters and they are using civil society as a conduit. These people have no idea of what donor funding is and they are worried about the health and livelihoods.

JM: Some have suggested that there are some political heavy weights that are bound to benefit from these water metres hence the incessant push for their approval, how far can this be true?
RF: We really do not know about this, but the reality is that accountability and transparency systems in Zimbabwe at large and even Bulawayo are very weak, and those in power have the leeway to juggle around with tenders and get themselves a good deal. It may be part of the reason why such an irrational policy is being pushed left right and centre.
However, it may also just be pressure from the government which wants to be seen by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to be reducing public spending through promoting neo-liberal policies that do not work in developing countries.

JM: Would you give an explanation as to why there is a strong divided opinion over the coming in of pre-paid water metres?
RF: The division is at two levels. First it is ideological, with those who believe in capitalist ideals of neo-liberalism agreeable to the idea of water being sold at a profit, while those of a social justice persuasion believe that governments have a duty to at least ensure that all people regardless of social standing equally have access to basics such as water.
Second, it’s about Zimbabwe’s political environment where the powers that be want to dictate policies on citizens without consulting them. Citizens are easily opposed to such policies, especially in this instance where the policy could hurt society in an unprecedented manner. So we have these sets of people standing on two opposite ends of the continuum. One group has financial and political power on its side and cares nothing about the consequences for the poor, unemployed, disabled widowed while the other group consists of the poor themselves.
The divisions are natural, but structures such as the courts, the constitution, the media, civil society and laws should ordinarily protect the poor.

JM: Finally, what are your last words regarding this highly contested matter?
RF: My last word is that local authorities and the central government should remember their obligations to the people and do what it takes to perform on those obligations.
Things like water, health and education should not be sold like commodities, at a premium price. The cost should be nominal, and the government should be subsidising such commodities in times like this when many are either jobless or earning too little to keep body and soul together.

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