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  • Writer's pictureMBF

Mafube’s Prepaid Water Meter Project on hold – for now!

Updated: Feb 15, 2022

On Wednesday evening 7 October, Mafube Local Municipality held a meeting in the Frankfort Town Hall, to inform residents of a Council decision to proceed with a R15 million project to install 1458 prepaid water meters in Frankfort. This was confirmed at the meeting by Mr. Diao Ramabitsa, Technical Services Director at the municipality, who saw no need for public consultation and could not answer the many questions asked of him by those present. MBF directed questions in writing to the Council but to date, have received no response, although indications are that the admonitions contained in our letter caused the municipal council to reconsider their position on this matter; and to hold back on this project – for now!

Why should residents be alarmed?

If not challenged by residents and organisations like MBF, Mafube Municipality will continue to ignore guidelines for public participation and legally required processes. The expenditure for this project does not reflect anywhere in the municipal budget and no consideration is given to more urgent and important obligations, such as water supply to Mamelo at Namahadi, where residents have had no access to piped water for the last 8 years and continue to rely on water deliveries by truck, at very high cost to the tax payer. MBF’s offer of assistance in this matter as well as many other offers to assist were refused by Mafube municipality. Mentioned facts give rise to questions such as: Did the council as a collective apply its mind when prioritising this project? Was payment statistics per area in relation to the number of users considered, the cashflow effect on business, the cost and the durability of the meters compared to what is available in the market?

Mafube have a poor record of maintaining the quality and availability of water supplied to residents, due to frequent breakdowns, lack of water treatment chemical and industrial action. More than 40% of water treated is lost through leaks and faulty or non-existent meters. To make matters worse, the municipality does not possess the capacity to manage a simple billing systems and currently only collect 11% of municipal revenue. Mafube cannot be relied on to successfully implement, operate and maintain anything as sophisticated as a prepaid system.

Prepayment for water of which the quality cannot be guaranteed should not be accepted.

It is doubtful that Mafube have done a proper assessment of what the prepaid water meter project entails, and have allowed themselves to be led by consultants, who stand to benefit financially from the project, at the expense of our residents. Had Mafube done their homework, they would have found:

· It is a myth that prepaid meters solve cost recovery problems.

· Prepayment does not guarantee lower non-revenue water

· Managing prepayment is more demanding than conventional meters and billing with interdependent electronic, mechanical, and software components to manage, and more to go wrong.

· Prepaid metering can magnify the impact of network deficiencies, especially throughout Mafube where interruptions are at the order of the day, with associated dirt and air in the system. Because of above-ground installation, freezing in winter is likely to cause further problems.

· Prepaid meters bring their own set of problems: the high cost of installation; the fact that meters can develop faults that deliver free water or can be bypassed or vandalized when monitoring and follow-up action are neglected, which opens the way for high NRW losses; technical shortcomings, including inaccurate readings when water pressure is variable; and so on. In addition, the opportunity cost of big investments is high, as the real working life of prepaid meters is only about 5–7 years, compared to the estimated 15 to 20 years for conventional meters.

The Moral Question

When one is aware that water sold to consumers is quite often not fit for human consumption is it fair to leave a consumer without remedies and to pay upfront for something which they are not receiving: Is the priority not clean water which is safe to consume together with a more reliable infrastructure? If we add the complaint or allegation that residents are billed for refuse removal whilst there is absolutely no service-delivery then it would not be unreasonable to start to distrust the municipality. Once the trust relationship is broken everything is questioned. Only the municipality can rectify the situation by being transparent and adhering to administrative processes.

A Lesson

The current decision by the municipality to place the project on hold or not to implement it at this time, is welcomed but reservedly so. It is a clear indication that by considering the input of others the municipality will receive value in the form of additional facts, which will also place them in a better position. By formally engaging with MBF in a structured manner, capacity will be created and expertise will be shared with the municipality. As all offers were refused to work together with MBF by the municipality, it will become more difficult in future for many clients of the municipality to trust them to provide quality, professional and affordable services.

* “Prepaid water systems are not a technical magical wand to fix underlying management issues in the delivery of urban water supply. A service provider that falls short on effective management, governance, and sound customer relations is likely to take on far more than it can deal with, by resorting to prepaid systems.”

*From: “The Limits and Possibilities of Prepaid Water in urban Africa: Lessons from the Field”, a report commissioned by WSP (Water Sanitation Project) and sponsored by the World Bank.

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