NGO slams prepaid water scheme

A Namibian rights NGO has slammed a local government scheme to provide prepaid water, saying it is making the basic commodity "unaffordable for the poor".

Helena Negumbo is among several thousand informal dwellers who have to buy water, when they can afford it, from a municipal tap. "I must first buy a card and put it into [a meter-box near] the tap. When the [money on the] card is finished, the water stops running, but I don't always have money for [more water]," she told IRIN.

The revenue generated by the prepaid water system - installed in informal settlements and rural areas by municipalities, including the capital, Windhoek, in early 2000 - is used to recover the cost of providing basic services such as water, streetlights and sanitation.

The card, which is purchased once, costs about US $15, and is then used to buy water in various amounts, explained Phil ya Nongoloh, director of the Namibian Society for Human Rights. It was putting water "beyond the reach of the informal settlement dwellers, who are domestic workers, security guards, earning less than $47 a month".

"Besides, the card is only available in municipal outlets in city centres, and it costs at least another two dollars to get there," he added.

Water provided by the prepaid system is even more expensive for rural dwellers. The usual daily minimum of 40 litres of water required by a family of six costs less than $0.05 in an urban area, but five times that amount in villages like Uudhiya, 560 km northwest of Windhoek.

"Besides paying for water for their family's daily consumption, poor communal farmers, who have no disposable income, have to pay water charges of between US $0.30 to $0.80 per livestock head every month," Nongoloh commented. "I know that in many villages farmers have stopped using the system and the water points have dried up, and people have gone back to the traditional sources of water, like streams and waterholes."

In many instances where water services are cut and pipelines have been closed, "the policy of cost-recovery artificially creates the conditions of drought," said Namibian researcher, Jade McClune.

"This further contributes to impoverishment of the rural population and encourages their steady urbanisation ... and in turn places added pressure on the water resources of the urban centres," he noted in his report, 'Water Privatisation in Namibia - creating a new apartheid?' for Namibia's Labour Resource and Research Institute.

The decision to set up the prepaid water system was influenced by the failure of local authorities to recover several million Namibian dollars in unpaid water bills.

"The single biggest challenge the informal settlements present is the low affordability of communities," said the mayor of Windhoek, Mathew Shikongo.

According to the national water utility, NamWater, created in 1998, a considerable number of local authorities owed it a substantial amount of money. "They are not able to meet their obligations, because many consumers cannot afford to pay their water bills to municipalities," said NamWater's corporate communications manager, John Shigweda. "It is a vicious circle".

"The prepaid technology was evidently also designed to discipline people to reduce their water consumption and is being sold as a measure of conservation," McClune observed. "It is not obvious to many people at first that the prepayment system is also a self-disconnecting device; the municipality no longer has to send someone to cut the water, and so risk a confrontation."

He pointed out that the system was "only installed in poor areas, not in the suburbs of the rich".

The government is considering ways to make water more affordable to the poor. This is quite a challenge, as water is a scarce commodity in Namibia, the driest country south of the Sahara. According to hydrologist Jürgen Kirchner, about 83 percent of water from rainfall over Namibia is lost to evaporation, while 14 percent is used by plants. "Only three percent actually contributes to the available water that can be used directly for our benefit."

"The Namibian government is very aware of the plight of the poor, and we are looking into the possibility to introduce a national water tariff," said Nickey Iyambo, Minister of Agriculture, Water and Rural development, at a recent NamWater strategic workshop.

Opposition politician Katuutire Kaura suggested that the provision of basic water services, including urban and rural supply, should be reincorporated into the public sector as a core function of government, operated on a non-profit and transparent basis, and not by a utility.

"Our party, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance, has urged the government several times to dissolve NamWater and bring back water supply services under the auspices of the agriculture ministry. Each year NamWater increases its tariffs between 10 and 20 percent, making water unaffordable for the poor," he told IRIN.

"We suggest a free percentage of household water supply to safeguard the interests of families, children and pensioners, and then staggered tariffs for households and industries," he added.

Municipalities in neighbouring South Africa provide a certain amount of water free to all households, "as it is a basic human right to have access to water - and we must emulate that," Nongoloh maintained.

According to McClune, who has outlined a link between outbreaks of waterborne diseases, like cholera, and poor communities who could not afford water, access to clean drinking water should be protected by legislative and institutional guarantees.