Prepaid Water Meters: A Solution to Harare's Perennial Water Woes?

By Takura Zhangazha


Harare, September 16, 2013 -The Harare City Council  (HCC) through its Water Department was recently reported in a local weekly as intending to introduce prepaid water meters by year end. This, soon after the much vaunted but under- analyzed and ongoing installation of prepaid meters for electricity. This stated intention of the HCC is most unfortunate and tantamount to the privatization of water,  a development which would most certainly have the ancestors wondering what on earth our elected and appointed officials might be thinking.

While there can be no argument against trying to find solutions to the challenge of citizens’ access to clean and running water, this latest proposal by the capital’s city council may be more a matter of seeking to address an illness via its symptoms. 

 Introducing prepaid water meters will not solve either the resource problems over and about either water treatment or its direct access by Harare residents. Neither will it build a much needed new reservoir that is envisioned to supply greater Harare with water. Unless of course the intention of council is to clandestinely increase the council rates and water bills under the guise of what can only be misleadingly referred to as sustainable water usage via prepaid meters.

Some amongst the social and political commentariat have openly welcomed these newfound policy maneuvers of central and local government on the basis of either ‘able to pay’ comfort zones or poorly thought out understanding of market economics.

 And these debates began when the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA) and its subsidiary commercialized units which  have been implementing the prepaid meter system. The issue then as it remains now was in tandem with the ‘use what you can pay for’ dictum. And it all appeared logical except that it has had the effect of making electricity available to only those that can pay for it. And in paying for it, consumers must now not only be frugal with the commodity but also deprive themselves of what now appears to be a luxury of cooking meals via electric stoves.

 The prepaid electricity policy of ZESA has neither reduced power-cuts nor increased our electricity generation capacity.  It has instead being a case of literally passing on the cost to the consumer without a proper assessment as to how and why electricity distribution has remained so inefficient.  For some consumers it may appear to be better to have the little electricity that they can afford than having no electricity at all (if there are no blackouts). This however does not make the policy any more democratic or responsive to the glaring need of improving the livelihoods of majority poor families.  And this is the elephant in the room.

 The convenience that the prepaid meters has given ZESA has probably been akin to a sigh of relief for the parastatal where regardless of its own inefficiencies, it passes on the cost to the consumer, and remorselessly so.  For each transaction or top up of the prepaid meter, there are the fixed charges of the rural electrification levy together with a specific percentage of incurred debt that will have been accrued by the consumer.  So essentially there is no new democratic departure point in the prepaid meter system. Its just merely a smarter way to give the impression that it is the consumer that had always been a problem when the reality of the matter is that the challenges of electricity production in Zimbabwe do not begin with the end user.

It is this sort of archaic model that the HCC wants to impose on residents for water consumption, and by dint of the same probably export the model to other municipalities.  Given that access to clean running water is a basic human right and directly relates to the right of all Zimbabweans to health, it is a development that does not bode well for recently elected local authority leaders. Water, like electricity needs calm approaches of balancing both cost and access. Prepaid meters are neither calm nor cost effective for overall supply of either water and electricity (hence the blackouts and dry taps).

To seek to inadvertently privatise water under the guise of prepaid billing systems is patently undemocratic.  Water is already a lucrative commodity via mineral water companies which sell it at commercial rates. For the HCC to want to adopt such an approach demonstrates that they are seeking an easier but symptomatic route out of the water crisis at the expense of the majority urban poor in Harare. 

What the HCC intends to do is pass on the cost to the consumer while at the same time failing to resolve the overall water crises the capital city faces. And even then, the very problem of water supply does not have its genesis in the consumer, but in central and local government authorities who converted pre-2008 water bills from Zimbabwean to United States dollars without evident  public consultation on conversion rates. 

Should the HCC go ahead with its plan either in pilot of full form, it will be a sad day for democracy in Zimbabwe. Of all the things to privatise, water must be sacred. But for some, they perhaps fail to realize that it is not money that makes us equal but common democoratic values and collective humanity. And it all begins with giving each other a glass of water without thinking of how much it will cost.


Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity.