The water crisis: Scrapping arrears isn’t enough

2012-03-05 00:00

IN response to Nalini Naidoo’s article: “Worried sick over water bills” dated February 28. The Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness (Pacsa) followed the Unit J and CC of Ward 16 Imbali case very closely in April 2011. It was election time and public representatives were falling over themselves to show that they were listening and addressing community concerns. We carefully noted the Imbali residents’ demands, the process they followed, observed their protest march, and their engagements with the council and, at that time, Sibusiso Sithole, the city’s new administrator. We listened to the promises made. We saw that the men and women who had used their feet and voices to cajole a public commitment to resolve their issues believed and trusted what they had heard. This public trust has been shattered — nothing came of it. Nothing except for some distant allusion that the debt will be scrapped.

It is useful to recall what had led Imbali residents onto the street. The water infrastructure was old and needed to be replaced. Meters were not working or there were no meters. Residents received bills calculated on readings from these phantom or broken meters. Residents fortunate enough to have working meters received bills based on estimations or inaccurate readings. It was clear that the bills that residents received had absolutely no relation to how much water they actually used. The money expected to be paid was incorrectly calculated and unjustified. The bills were also outrageously expensive and many households faced massive debts.

The debt-collection machine kicked in. One old woman surviving on a state pension of R1 180 was being forced to pay R900 towards her bill every month. Others were forced to make arrangements on debt running into hundreds of thousands of rands. Unable to pay these bills and feeling unhappy about doing so, many households faced a serious crisis. Households were then issued garnishee orders and were receiving summonses. Many were being threatened by the city’s lawyers.

At this point it is useful to recall the demands of the Imbali residents – all of which were perfectly reasonable: (1) the city must replace all old and aging water infrastructure; (2) meters must be installed on sites which have none; faulty meters must be replaced and zeroed; (3) meters must be read regularly and estimations must stop; (4) billing irregularities must be remedied; (5) incorrect water bills related to these billing irregularities and faulty infrastructure and poor administration must be scrapped; and (6) a moratorium on all debt collection must be upheld until the billing crisis is sorted out.

Council’s current response to the imbroglio is to scrap arrears. It is important to note that by law municipalities have to make provision for bad debt. This is to be enacted annually. It has been several years since Msunduzi Municipality has scrapped arrears. There is no question that the arrears should be scrapped. These write-offs should not be cloaked in benevolence or as a gift or an indication of generosity — the municipality has to, by law, write off irrecoverable debt and money is allocated for this provision.

However, scrapping arrears, although necessary, must not be conflated with resolving the problems which caused it. Scrapping the debt will just result in the debt being scrapped. After the debt has been scrapped, all the problems that caused debt to escalate will not only still be there, but the mechanisms to enforce payment and recover money will be more ruthless.

The Imbali case is not isolated to a few households and it is not an isolated problem. The Imbali case repeats itself in various guises in communities across the municipal jurisdiction. Yet, meter-reading irregularities, metering infrastructure and billing errors might be technical in nature but they are just one component of the failures in the larger delivery policy and tariff structure framework. Msunduzi Municipality does not have a policy to ensure that low-income households are able to access secure and sufficient volumes of affordable water. Currently, only five percent or 4 293 out of a potential 81 000 households, which meet the income criteria to qualify for subsidies, receive free basic water. The other 95% of these low-income households, having excluded themselves by consuming more than the wholly inadequate six kilolitres are then pushed into the expensive second tariff block. Consequently, they are charged the same amount per kilolitre as their wealthier counterparts for whom the price of water, albeit comparatively more expensive than other municipalities, does not keep them awake at night.

The municipality cannot attempt to resolve the water-service affordability, billing, capacity, maintenance and infrastructural crisis by employing weak attempts to placate the symptoms. One of the best examples of this is the practice (and individualising strategy) which sees billing irregularities as individual problems to be sorted out on a case-by-case basis. Such an approach is flawed and delusional, and probably exhausting for those public representatives who are trying to help their constituencies find some relief.

The crisis must be approached at the level of policy.

Pacsa, the Eastwood Community Forum and communities in and around Pietermaritzburg have, at various times, been struggling within the past several years to get the Department of Water Affairs (DWA) to intervene decisively in what we see as a municipal services affordability crisis. Our latest attempt took place last month. On February 2 we (Pacsa and representatives from several communities across the municipality) had a meeting with the DWA’s Regulation Unit in Pietermaritzburg. We raised several concerns regarding Msunduzi Municipality’s non-compliance with national policy, regulations, constitutional injunctions and particularly with how the municipality interprets and sometimes disregards policy, structures its tariffs and causes its residents to fall into debt.

The DWA Regulation Unit, too, was unable or unwilling to see that any resolution had to start with a careful analysis of the causes of the problem. Instead, it spent a great deal of time chastising the women representing their communities for not paying their bills. We countered by stating that we did not disagree that payment was important but that payment, like scrapping debt, was at the end of the problem spectrum and that resolution lies in addressing the causes, which have to start at policy.

The DWA regulation unit has set up a meeting with Msunduzi Municipality. We do not know when this meeting will take place, nor do we feel optimistic about the outcomes. What we know for sure, however, is that if nothing is done, the situation will escalate. We know this, ever mindful that crises with water-service affordability occur together with increases in food, in transport, electricity and across the board July tariff increases — just in time for winter, and exacerbated by unemployment and HIV/Aids. Low-income households in Msunduzi Municipality are fast approaching their tipping point. Scrapping arrears is simply not enough.

• Sibusiso Khanyile is a project organiser at Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness (Pacsa). Julie Smith is a researcher and lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and works closely with Pacsa. Both work on water service delivery issues, billing and affordability and water access.

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