HARARE - Local authorities all over Zimbabwe, which have threatened to continue massive water disconnections to non-paying households, must first put their houses in order by improving deliveries and establishing credible billing systems before cutting people off.
Most local authorities claim that consumers have not been paying their bills though their previous balances were scrapped in 2013 following a government directive.
For instance, in Harare alone, at least 2 000 households and commercial properties were disconnected in the past few weeks as the local authority seeks to recover at least $169 million.
If this sum is collected, there is no doubt that it will assist the city council in procuring water chemicals, pay its wage bill and cater for its various other needs. However, people have not been deliberately refusing to pay their water bills in the past two years.
The economy is not performing, unemployment rates have shot up dramatically and disposable incomes have shrunk to previously unimaginable levels.
In line with the deteriorating economic conditions in the country, where poverty has increased from 63 percent in 2003 to 76 percent in 2014, with most of Zimbabwe’s population living on less than $2 a day, the city fathers must come up with mechanisms that bring people on board.
For instance, local authorities can come up with a system that allows households to pay their bills over time in instalments, instead of wholesale water disconnections.
While we are not advocating for households to stop paying their water bills, because water — like any other basic human services — must be paid for, but local authorities, especially Harare, must first ensure that their billing systems are in order and that treated and potable water is flowing in taps.
It doesn’t make sense for the city fathers to go ahead and disconnect households, when people are being made to pay bills for water that does not tally with their usage. Over the past few years, documented challenges faced by most households across the country include water bills inaccurately running into thousands, unachievable payment plan schedules and shutoffs that didn’t come with prior warning notices.
Government must enforce local authorities to restore service to customers without water, stop plans for further cut-offs and implement fair water rates.
It is our strong conviction that restricting access to water for those who can’t afford to pay “constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights”.
Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbid disconnections.