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Pre-paid water meters the official solution for Zimbabwe urban water crisis
In an effort to deliver potable water on a regular basis to its urban centres, Zimbabwe is trying to attract private investors by hosting the three-day Water Resources and Infrastructure Investment summit in Harare.
For many in the urban areas, including Harare, Bulawayo and Mutare, daily access to water is tough.
“Most communities do not access water, and in Harare they are only able to supply 55% of the citizenry, covering Harare Metro Province and Norton,” Precious Shumba, the director of Harare Residents’ Trust told RFI.
Leaking, old and crumbling pipes are part of the problem, but the urban explosion post-independence is what has taxed the infrastructure, says Kudzanai Gwande, of Environment Africa, an NGO that works on sustainable development and conservation in Zimbabwe.
“In communal areas, water access is actually free to everybody. You can go and fetch water from rivers, you can get water from wells, you can dig their own wells. It’s free,” says Gwande.
Rural residents seeking a better life and jobs in the cities have an additional expense in paying for water that was free in the rural areas.
But urban water, Gwande says is actually paid for by consumers. “It is controlled by the urban authorities – city councils and local boards,” he adds.
“The government decimated the agricultural sector after 2000, so many fled to the urban centres, putting a strain on existing infrastructure,” says Vince Musewe, an independent Harare-based economist.
The government has introduced the idea of pre-paid water meters in Zimababwe’s three urban centres in the hopes of making people pay only for the water they use.
Musewe says that it’s a good idea, especially as consumers in Harare have been receiving bills for water they haven’t received. “There’s been serious corruption and mismanagement, even when residents are paying they’re still not getting the service.”
Precious Shumba, who represents Harare’s residents, doesn’t agree.
“This is an attempt by central government to disconnect the elected representatives of the people from the management of water. As soon as water is privatised, it means that elected counsellors have very little to say in how this precious commodity is managed at a local authorities level,” says Shumba.
Additionally, he says that Zanu-Pf , the ruling party, is trying to punish the poor.
“ The govt of Zanu-Pf is trying to take away powers from their citizens in urban local authorities who have consistently voted for the opposition MDC and we think that the strategy is to disempower the MDC counsellors so that they do not have much say in urban short economic development, especially the control of an important commodity water,” he says.
While lack of water is an issue for many African countries, for Zimbabwe, which is rich in water, it is a matter of managing and expanding the infrastructure.
“We have a lot of water in Zimbabwe, but the delivery system is a challenge,” says Gwande, who says he is not sure that privatisation of water is good for consumers in the long run.
“We haven’t invested in water infrastructure in terms of more dams, and we need to identify other catchment areas where you can have good water,” he adds.
Economist Musewe says that dealing with water, which is a fundamental right, is tricky, but some ideas that have been floated include giving urban residents the UN daily allowance of 50 litres per day and making residents work the pre-pay system for any water over that amount.
Ultimately, he hopes that by privatising water, it will attract foreign private investment.
“You have a lucrative concession, because water is definitely a need,” he says, adding that major foreign investors should not be daunted by the Zimbabwean indigenisation law that requires foreign businesses to ensure that a Zimbabwean has a 51% stake in the company.
“It’s turned into an attractive proposition, but the problem is who ends up with the contract a competent company that actually delivers or is it because you have a predator kind of political system, everyone wants to feed off of them,” says Musewe.
“Therefore, the end product ends up being very expensive to the poor,” he adds.