THE life of Miriam Mhizha of Chitungwiza is a tale of increasing despair as she contemplates that her perennial struggle to make ends meet is set to become even more gruelling.
With the introduction of the pre-payment system for utilities, she could sink deeper into poverty as she cannot afford to meet the cost of such essentials on her meagre salary of US$200 a month.
In addition to the rent and electricity bills she has to pay in advance, Mhizha — a single mother of two who works at a clothing retail shop in Harare — will soon also have to pay her water bill upfront if the City of Harare installs pre-paid water meters at all households as planned.
From her US$200 monthly salary, Mhizha has to fork out US$80 for rent, an average US$30 for electricity and US$20 for water, meaning she would have to pay around US$130 in advance when the pre-paid water meters are installed.
With the remaining US$70, she needs at least US$44 a month for transport costs, leaving US$26 for food, clothing and other day-to-day necessities like firewood and candles as power cuts are frequent and often unscheduled.
Mhizha says pre-payment increases the onerous financial burden on the poor, who constitute 62% of Zimbabwe’s population, according to 2012 statistics.
“We have inadequate disposable incomes, but have to pay an increasing number of bills at the end of the month including house rentals and electricity and, if the authorities have their way soon, water as well,” she said.
“Postpaid accounts gave individuals the leeway to plan how to settle debts and when funds were not permitting one could ignore some of the debts, but settle them later. But now you can’t do that. This is cruel, especially for the poor.”
David Chafa of Sunningdale concurred with Mhizha, pointing out pre-payment does not guarantee uninterrupted supplies. The Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (Zesa) implemented the prepayment system last year by installing pre-paid electricity meters in more than 300 000 households.
“The prepaid meters for electricity have not improved our situation as consumers,” Chafa said. “We are still subjected to long hours of load-shedding yet we would have paid in advance. We wonder if anything will change when this (pre-payment system) is extended to water.”
However, despite appeals from residents, local government seems determined to extend the pre-paid system to water bills.
Harare City Council revenues were on Wednesday reported to have taken a plunge to US$4,5 million from an average of US$6 million monthly as the local authority is also losing huge quantities of treated water through leakages.
The director for water Engineer Christopher Zvobgo was quoted as saying some residents in the city were illegally removing water meters.
The City of Harare confirmed this week it is mulling the installation of pre-paid water meters on all households, a development which it said is expected to resolve the issue of overcharging consumers.
“The smart meters will help to increase revenue and one is required to charge before water usage and they have proven to be cheaper for the households,” said City of Harare Town Clerk Tendai Mahachi. “We will synchronise the installation of the smart meters and the availability of water in all areas.”
But analysts say this new pre-payment policy for electricity and water is discriminatory against the majority of Zimbabweans who are poor and unemployed.
President Robert Mugabe revealed during the official opening of the first session of the eighth parliament last Tuesday that city council will have a private partner in the provision and management of water.
Mugabe said: “I am pleased to note that disbursement of a US$144 million facility from China for the upgrading of Harare’s water and sanitation infrastructure will commence soon.
In addition, the city will, in collaboration with an identified partner, implement a revamped water service delivery plan.
The plan will see construction of three new dams and additional water treatment plants over the next seven years.”
However, residents and social activists are not only worried that the poor will have difficulty accessing these essential services, but also remain sceptical that pre-payment of electricity and water will be the panacea to poor supplies experienced over the past decade.
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) poverty index, the majority of Zimbabweans live on less than US$2 a day.
Social commentator Takura Zhangazha said pre-payment was a form of privatising essential resources.
Zhangazha said: “This stated intention of the Harare City Council is most unfortunate and tantamount to the privatisation of water, a development which would most certainly have the ancestors wondering what on earth our elected and appointed officials might be thinking.”
Zhangazha said pre-payment could be council’s intention to “clandestinely increase rates and water bills under the guise of what can only be misleadingly referred to as sustainable water usage via pre-paid meters”.
Social and economic justice activist Hopewell Gumbo slammed the council’s intended move: “Pre-paid meters are the worst thing a government which claims to be pro-poor can adopt in a modern-day world,” said Gumbo.
“It simply means ‘disconnect yourself’ and that has serious consequences to the poor who cannot afford.”
Zimbabwe has faced water shortages in the last decade resulting in a serious cholera epidemic in 2008 and 2009 which left over 4 000 people dead.