IN my piece entitled -It May Be Free, But Someone Pays For It – I presented an opinion from the Academic Foundation book, where Barun Mitra, Kendra Okonski and Mohit Satyanand argue that ‘cheap’ water results in less investment in water infrastructure. There was an outcry including from MDC members and supporters, some of whom characterized my argument as not only neo-liberal but also defeating the social democratic cause. The debate on the ‘morality’ of pre-paid water meters is still raging like wild fire.
One can understand the reflex reaction of my fellow social democrats. Water is life and hence those looking for evidence of life in Mars do so by looking for water. It is also a constitutional human right. Section 77 of our new Zimbabwe Constitution says:
“Every person has the right to-
(a)safe, clean and portable water; and
(b) sufficient food;
and the State must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within the limits of the resources available to it, to achieve the progressive realisation of this right.”
During the constitution-making process, our teams haggled on enforceability of this right, given the ‘disability’ to provide water by most local authorities and government itself. In fact, one of the greatest failures of MDC-T controlled councils has been in water delivery. In Harare, there are low density areas such as Greendale, Mt Pleasant, Borrowdale and Glen Lorne which have gone for decades without council water.
The MDC-controlled Bulawayo City Council, under former Mayor Japhet Ndabeni Ncube and an equally supportive Bulawayo community, did its best to mitigate the effects of ‘water induced de-industrialisation’, threatened by the Dr. Ignatius Chombo-controlled local government ministry, which did all it could to impose the dysfunctional ZINWA, a decision which had to be reversed when met with stiff resistance. Nonetheless, Harare-based companies began pulling out of Bulawayo for more reasons than water, thus depriving the city of vital rates and other income.
Zanu PF was so desperate for votes in July 2013, so much that the Babylonian Decree by the clueless Dr. Chombo ordered all councils to cancel debts – totally crippling the capacity of urban authorities to supply water. Even more importantly, many residents now refuse or duck and dive in the payment of water bills openly saying there is no point in paying when these bills will be cancelled before the next elections.Advertisement
Water provision remains a contentious issue nationwide. Most rural people have to walk very long distances in search of this precious liquid and over the years, residents have been up in arms with ZINWA for its failure to manage water and provide clean and safe water to citizens.
Like any other parastatal in Zimbabwe, ZINWA suffers from mismanagement, inefficiency and corruption and some residents – including hotels, hospitals and some businesses – have had to drill boreholes.
But this has come at an extra cost as they have to grapple with the red tape and costs which go with nationalization of water which was effected by the Water Act by which all water in the country is vested in the President and none can be abstracted without authority except for a primary purpose such as drinking.
Not only has ZINWA failed to provide reliable, clean drinking water to residents, it has failed to manage the sewer systems as can be witnessed by the burst sewage pipes in most urban areas in the country.
This week I make more reference to this important subject of water because most urban councils are at war against citizens over pre -paid water meters.
The ‘water is a constitutional right’ anti-prepaid meter lobby group (APMLG) is vehement in that pre-payment compromises the poor. They correctly argue that when we apply for stands, ‘safe, clean and portable water’ is one obligation part of our contractual relations with council. Actually at one time before land allocation was infiltrated by criminal Zanu PF gangs masquerading as ‘housing cooperatives’, by -laws ensured that a water meter be installed as a prerequisite for building.
That the state has an obligation to ensure that every citizen has access to safe and clean water is uncontestable. Rightly so. The question is: how does a failed state ensure the progressive realization of this right when on a daily basis thousands of workers are losing their jobs as a result of the failure of Zanu PF to properly manage the economy? It is difficult to imagine the people electing a more clueless, more incompetent and totally directionless government than the one we have which sits idle by seemingly in mental paralysis in the face of job losses (a subject I return to next week under the title From two million jobs to two million job losses) unprecedented in the history of this country.
As of today and under Zanu PF watch, the rate of the building of dams nationwide is dismal, existing dams are inadequately maintained and dam safety inspections have not been undertaken for many years and water pollution, from point and non -point sources is a serious and growing problem.
It is estimated that 43 sewage treatment plants are discharging untreated or partially treated sewage into rivers and reservoirs. The widespread discharge of industrial effluents is dumping nutrients, organic matter and heavy metals into rivers. Gold panning activities have caused riverine destruction, in addition to introducing mercury, a powerful neurotoxin, into the country’s rivers.
Maintenance and repairs of rural water supply systems have virtually collapsed. Water experts estimate that about 80% of the installed water pumps across the country are in one or other state of disrepair and/or malfunction.
According to the 2012 National Water Policy; “Recent assessments indicate that only 43% of the rural population was using any form of sanitation facility, a third of the population have no toilet facilities and practice open defecation with the percentage being especially high (43%) in the rural areas,”. The document highlights the inability of vulnerable populations to access safe water and basic sanitation, poor hygiene practices and a collapsed health care system culminating in frequent diarrhea and cholera outbreaks. In 2008 this saw 100 000 people affected one way or another and over 4 000 deaths due to cholera.
There can be no doubt that incompetence; corruption and lack of innovation make it difficult for municipalities to supply water. Imagine how long Harare has been ‘talking’ about Kunzwi Dam; and how the Matabeleland Zambezi Water Project is only raised during electoral campaigns! Our equally dysfunctional government has been trumpeting ‘mega water deals’ for as long as we can remember. Most Zanu PF ministries to do with agriculture and water have been promising citizens ‘modern irrigation systems’, but today, Zimbabwe is struggling to import seven hundred tons of maize to supplement our old fashioned and out of modern times rain-fed agriculture.
The pro-prepaid meter lobby group (PPMLG) also makes good points. I am personally of the opinion that the pervasive sense of entitlement has been one of many reasons why we Zimbabweans are this poor. We were not always like this, until Zanu PF took political patronage to galactic levels. For reasons to do with self-preservation, President Mugabe will – year after year – tell Zimbabweans that Zanu PF provides free farming inputs to ‘his’ people. Of course, these inputs ‘look’ free, but they are funded from your and my taxes appropriated and branded Z PF provisions as if taxes are paid only by Zanu PF supporters. Whether you are rich or poor, you pay value added tax, licenses, rates, school, hospital and toll fees. There is nothing central and local government does which you do not pay for. What is so tragic is that the APMLG move about with an air of self-contentment with pre-paid ‘Buddie lines’ and pre-paid ‘ZESA units’. They pay for bus rides, buy newspapers, bread and beer. In their minds, the only ‘evil’ thing to pay for in advance is water, because ‘we are unemployed and poor’ and because water is a basic human right.
I threw questions to our party WhatsApp Chat groups a few days ago: “Are the poor paying for the water they are consuming? If not, who is paying for them? If they are already paying what would be the problem if they continue paying under prepaid meters? Is the case against prepaid meters only about the cost and durability of the meters and the additional burden this will place on poor citizens or are there other objections? If there are what are those objections?” The APMLG argues that water cannot be free for everyone, but will be expensive and unaffordable to the majority. They also adopt a populist stance that MDC has to be on the side of the majority of residents who are opposed to pre-paid meters. “The social effects are such that water becomes accessible to only those that can afford it and this is happening in a context of high unemployment, deepening poverty and highly vulnerable communities.”
The PPMLG accepts that electricity is already pre-paid. So what is so special about water? Some of our party young turks argue that water is different because unlike electricity, it has no alternative such as firewood or coal. True that is, but every responsible citizen or for that matter social democrat must accept that it is all of us who use water who must contribute to the costs of delivering it safe and clean to our homes.
Already it is said that, “In the Cowdray Park area (of Bulawayo) a lot of people have apparently been selling water to those who are building in the same neighborhood, thus accumulating huge debts to council. Council needs to curb the practice” They see pre-paid meters as another way of preventing waste.
What is frightening is how some people just chose to ignore the facts. The costs of getting the water to our tapes includes water treatment chemicals, maintenance, repairs and replacements of pumps, engines, and pipes at source water bodies(dams), at reservoirs, salaries and wages of people who do all the work that is necessary to deliver clean and safe water to our tapes. No amount of rates can absorb such an expense. Councils will run out of money to pay for the things which make it possible to deliver that water (in the same way the government eventually ran out of money to provide the services it must provide such as books, medicines, etc) then the water delivery infrastructure will decay and collapse and no one will have clean public water.
Many studies have been carried out on water delivery, including one by Peter Brabeck-Lemathe (‘Water is a human right but not a free good’) and Fredrik Segerfeldt (‘Water for Sale’). Brabeneck-Lemathe argues that use of water to fill up swimming pools, watering flower/vegetable gardens and washing cars should come with a commercial cost. Sunday Mail columnist Hardlife Mudzingwa wrote that “Local authorities view pre-payment as an effective policy to deal with unaccounted water and the culture of non-payment for water.” He further observed of the 2013 National Water Policy “gives the foundation to the pre-paid water metering policy … The same policy gives birth to Water Service Providers which may be public, private or mixed and are responsible for providing water.”
In my view the real issue is not whether we should have a pre -paid water system in urban councils but whether local authorities under the auspices of the Ministry of Local Government can be trusted to introduce pre -paid water meters cost effectively, transparently and effectively, given the corrupt nature of most MDC-T and ZANU PF run councils and their propensity of stealing from rate payers. What measures should be put in place to ensure residents are not shortchanged? Already we are hearing murmurings of pre -paid water meter tenders being awarded corruptly at prices ranging between $160-$250 per meter, which inevitably one way or the other would be borne by rate payers or water users. It is against this background that proper dialogue between local authorities and residents is an imperator.
Given all these challenges, once in power, the MDC through a devolved water management system will guarantee citizens clean piped water of the highest World Health Organisation standards. Urban and rural households will be exposed to revolutionary rain water-harvesting methods, while municipal and provincial governments will be encouraged to seek water supply partnership with private investors and international agencies.
Public budgets will be requested to have water investment components and strict regulations will be put in place to preserve ground water and eliminate river pollution. There will be drastic action to remove water management from dysfunctional public institutions to ensure that Zimbabweans have access to water from its large rivers like Limpopo, Zambezi, Odzi, Tokwe and Save. No drop of water will be allowed to go to waste as we would push for grey water recycling, a system which collects water from baths, showers, sinks, washing machines and other kitchen appliances and recycle it for garden use.
Professor Welshman Ncube is the president of the MDC party.