Harare: Prepaid water meter system and tragedy of cart before the ox

The City of Harare is carrying out a flagship project to introduce prepaid water meter system in the city as it seeks to improved its urban service delivery. This smart water system which replaces the conventional water system by offering a prepaid component to the water supply seeks to improve the management of water supply in the city. This is particularly to improve revenue collection, and water billing effectiveness. The idea that has been in pipeline since 2011, was launched in 2016 starting by a pilot project of 2000 prepaid water meter installations. The pilot comprised of selected six districts of the city that represent various clusters of the city. After concluding the pilot project as a success, the city is moving to adopt a city-wide installation of prepaid meters which is more than 190 000 consumer connections to have the prepaid water meters.

Prepaid System and Water Billing System

City of Harare’s motives to adopt prepaid water meters has been the realisation that it is losing significant revenue through non-payment of water bills by most residents. The council has been losing 30 percent of revenue from water through leakages, 32 percent through commercial losses (water used through illegal connections) leaving it to only 38 percent of revenue from water supply. As a result, it decided to introduce the prepaid water system to curb the challenge. Nevertheless, the City of Harare also loses most of its treated water through leakages as they water mainways are in state of dilapidation and overdue for rehabilitation contributing to high level of non-revenue water.

There have been also reports that at least 50 percent of current water meters are not functional, some water meters were illegally disconnected by residents and there are illegal water connections in new settlements. The City council as a result seeks to curb this through the water metering system. Of the 192 000 customer water connections that exists, the city acknowledges that more than 80 000 properties in the city are not captured in the city’s database. Of these 80 000, some of them might be enjoying unbilled water supply given the shortcomings of the current water supply and billing system. Hence the introduction of prepaid water metering system address the shortcoming of commercial water losses from illegal connections and outstanding bills. Nevertheless, residents in Harare have been also experiencing mistaken water bills as they received bills nonreflective of their water consumption. The introduction of the prepaid water metering system, as a result, address this challenge as residents pay for what they consume.

Prepaid Meter on Dilapidated Water mainway system

While the prepaid meter systems appear appealing from a billing efficiency perspective, it has significant drawbacks which can lead to ineffective water delivery efficiency. The City of Harare’s 890km2 metropolitan area is served by about 6, 000 km of transmission distribution water mains that range from 50mm to 1,500 mm. Most of these pipes are made of asbestos cement except a few installed in the late 1990s which are made of steel uPvc. With the water distribution pipelines, as old as over 60 years, water outburst occurs throughout the city leading to more than 60 percent in non-revenue water, water lost through leakages. To date the City Council has managed to rehabilitate an estimate of 160km of pipework against the overall 6, 000 km. The City of Harare has prioritised prepaid water meter system in efforts to reduce the risk of water bills payments defaulting which it has been regarding a major factor for low revenues from water supply. Other contributing factors has been illegal water connections, illegal removal of water conventional meters by residents.

However, the City of Harare suffers from even a larger problem, non-revenue water, which is water lost through leakages. The city loses more than 60 percent of its treated water through leakages, of which water treatment for the city cost an estimated US$3 million per month. With more than 60 percent of water being non-revenue, the introduction of prepaid water meter will choke the revenue from water supply. Residents will pay for what they consume. Hence, if the distribution network is not rehabilitated which causes the 30 percent loss in overall revenue, the prepaid water meters only curbs the 32 percent commercial losses that the city is experiencing.

One of the component the city clarified was leak detectors in the water mainway. The level of mainway dilapidation, however, is beyond the efficiency of using leak detectors and mainway repairs as the distribution network is long overdue for a major rehabilitation. As a result, the leak detectors will serve the cosmetic function of portraying leakages under monitoring yet not addressing the main problem which is growing bigger. Given the rate of response to report of water leakages, one would wonder how leak detectors will improve the city’s capacity and response rate. As the city of Harare embarks on rehabilitation of the water supply system from treatment plants to distribution networks, the sequence of rehabilitation procedures is very important. Installing prepaid meters prior to mainways pipelines is like tightening the monitoring of a leaking pipe deteriorated beyond efficiency of leak detectors. As a result, the revenue from water supply will shrink as the expense of revenue to rehabilitate the network and efficient supply water.

Archimedes Muzenda
Archimedes Muzendahttps://archimuzenda.com
Archimedes Muzenda is an urbanist who researches on urban development and land use planning in Sub Saharan Africa. His thematic areas of research include new towns development, urban redevelopment, urban transport and regional integration. He is a Senior Research Associate at the African Urban Institute.

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