Water payments go down the toilet

Johannesburg Water’s (JW) full-page advertisement, carried by the Mail & Guardian on August 29, was intended to pacify people already angered by JW’s compulsory installation of pre-payment water meters in Soweto. But instead of this placatory effect, the advertisement warrants outrage.

It seeks to sell the virtues of pre-payment meters. To this end it shamelessly pretends that the current flat-rate system of payment is not only old-fashioned, but a relic of apartheid. Prepayment meters, by contrast, are sexied-up as “the modern, new system”. What is more, JW tells the impoverished people of Soweto that prepayment meters allow them to exercise choice over how much they spend on water.

And if all this is not enough, JW has the gall to imply that prepayment meters are an absolute must if the residents of Soweto want to solve the problem of water leakages. JW is eager to promote its meters as being far cheaper than the existing flat rate. This statement conceals the scandal of the poor paying considerably more than the rich for their water. The flat-rate charge in Soweto for 10 kilolitres (kl) is almost eight times more than what those in Sandton pay for the same amount of water.

Water from a prepayment meter is 20% more expensive than from a standard meter in Johannesburg and 58,8% more expensive than the same amount of metered water in Cape Town. And while the people of Sandton are free to choose whether to have a prepayment meter, the poor of Soweto do not enjoy the privilege of choice. The advert is silent about why Sowetans with the “sexy technology” have to pay considerably more for their water.

However, the problem for most Sowetans is not just the cost of their water but that they have to pay for it before they can get a drop more than the 6kl per household that is supposed to be provided free. This would not be a major issue if the 6kl was anywhere near the “lifeline” supply the Constitution requires. Apart from the huge problem of what actually constitutes a household, 6kl of water is only one of the basic needs required for health, hygiene and dignity for someone living in a country of South Africa’s wealth in the 21st century.

Even JW acknowledges that 6kl is not adequate. The advert tells us that this amount of free water only “goes a long way to meet the basic needs of the average household”. Indeed, 6kl of water almost equals the amount of effluent that is used when a toilet is flushed twice.

JW is silent on how the “average household” in Soweto is supposed to afford their basic water needs.

To talk about “consumer control” in this context is a cruel joke. The only choice available to people living in poverty is to go hungry or thirsty. Should they skimp on water, they do so at the cost of hygiene. This is why Britain has outlawed the disconnection of households for non-payment of water bills.

Indeed, Britain serves to remind us of the virtues of flat-rate water charges being part of each household’s water bill. JW wants us to believe that such-flat rate systems are old-fashioned and linked only with the evils of apartheid. Yet metered water is the exception in Britain. Flat-rate charges carry the weight of social responsibility, especially in a water-scarce country such as ours. A socially responsible approach to this issue is public education, along with the active participation of communities in the management of their water.

Water leakages are another serious problem. However, JW insults us with the suggestion that this problem cannot be tackled without prepayment meters. Prepayment meters in themselves do not stop leakages. Meters merely measure water flows — and these flows include leaking water within each household.

Why, one may ask, is JW, along with its French multinational partner, Suez Lyonnaise, compelling people to use prepayment meters, when to do so is in contravention of Sections 77 and 78 of the Municipal Systems Act, and if the meters are so bad?

The answer is that while meters are a disaster for almost everyone, they are highly attractive to a small number of people for the following reasons:

  • Prepayment meters are by far the most effective form of credit control and debt repayment for those whose primary objective is not the supply of clean and affordable water but cost recovery.

  • Politicians welcome prepayment meters no less than bureaucrats. This “modern” technology means the “choice” of when to stop using water no longer rests with the policy-makers but with individual households. Water cut-offs become self-imposed. What could be more politically convenient?

  • Prepayment meters are good business. Each costs within the region of R800. This is more than enough to make the contract for the whole of Soweto one worth getting.

    Could this be why JW, although owned by the municipality and therefore accountable to the Johannesburg electorate, is so eager to keep its contracts with the business sector secret; and why court action is having to be taken to force it to make public its contract with the private company installing the meters?

    Roger Ronnie is the general secretary of the South African Municipal Workers’ Union, which recently passed a resolution opposing the use of prepayment meters.

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