‘The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.’~Hannah Arendt
As I listened to the proceedings of the council meeting on 14 April that debated the issue of prepaid water, it brought to mind a woman I met many years ago that you should know about. I was doing field research into the effects of prepaid water meters when I first met Lydia* in 2003.
She lived in DRC in Swakopmund with her mother and two small brothers in a small three-room shack. Like others in DRC, they had no electricity or water supply at home. They would recharge their prepaid water card at the municipality, then collect water from a communal tap and carry it home.
Times were tough and it was hard to see her mom and brothers go without food and water. Lydia had been out of school for over two years after passing matric but struggled to find a job. So, at one point she resorted to sex work to survive. With the money she earned she mostly bought water and food.
Sometimes the men refused to wear condoms but she was a young person with little power. She was around 20 when I met her. She was HIV positive. I’m telling you this, Mr. Mayor, because Lydia contracted HIV while trying to earn money with which to buy prepaid water for her family.
Last week you said your vision is for prepaid water meters to be installed in homes across the City.
May I ask whether any impact assessment has been done to look at the effect of prepaid water systems on public health and safety, crime rates, fire safety, domestic violence, on the rights of women and children, the disabled and the elderly?
No easy solution
Prepaid water is being marketed as an easy solution that would make it easier to manage household water use and debt, but the fact is it is also an automatic cut-off device, meaning people might be stuck without water when they need it most and can least afford it.
From council’s standpoint prepaid water would ensure a steady stream of cash income; no need for household debt pile-ups because people who can’t afford the tariffs are automatically disconnected when they run out of credit.
Council would get its money before anyone even takes a sip.
Mr. Mayor, council is clearly creating a two-tier model of service delivery: one service level for the rich and another for the poor. You are undertaking (without any public consultation) a massive social engineering experiment without even one page of research and evidence to support it.
Punishing the poor
In trying to solve the corporate financial crisis by transferring the burden to the poor, you’ve not tackled the root cause of the problem of social inequality and poverty, but only added to the many burdens that already weigh on the working class. In fact, according to your proposed tariffs, prepaid customers will pay around 50% more per kiloliter of water than post-paid customers! How is that helping the poor?
In addition to Namwater’s bulk water cost and its own operational costs, Council may include in prepaid tariffs the cost of the meter (N$4300) with interest, plus rates and taxes, plus existing debt and interest, plus basic water charges, plus vendor charges. The cost to consumers would also include repaying the N$300 million bank loan and interest thereon for the meters, which the banks are very eager to finance.
Mr. Mayor, in your maiden speech you said as political office-bearers you’d be setting the new policy direction but it is clear that municipal officials have been developing this policy for some time and that you are following them, not the other way around.
The prepaid water plan was already in the pipeline under the previous Swapo-led council. There was also no mention of prepaid water in your manifesto. Therefore, it seems you are implementing Swapo’s neoliberal policies, a party you claim to oppose.
Curiously, you also said you want the N$300 million contract for the supply of prepaid meters to be kept “in-house” (kamma to curtail “the capitalists”) — but surely Mr. Mayor you realize that this digital technology is produced by global corporations and that the municipality is not geared up to manufacture this tech “in-house”. So what did you possibly mean?
It seems, Mr. Mayor, that you’ve not done due diligence nor commissioned any feasibility study to look into the potential health and socio-economic impacts of prepaid water. You openly acknowledge that prepaid water means more suffering for the poor, yet you happily adopted this neoliberal policy, knowing it will hurt the poor.
Access to water is a fundamental right
Access to water should be a right, not a privilege reserved for those with cash. By taking “aggressive” control of the water supply, as you promised to, council would in effect be holding every household to ransom for cash up-front payment under threat of cutting their lifeline of water supply through a system that automatically filters out the cashless poor.
As a critic of capitalism you should know, Mr. Mayor, that prepaid water is a prime example of predatory capitalism, and you are its main proponent.
All indications are that prepaid water and cut-offs will increase the rate of disease proliferation and place additional burdens on the health system. It would likely also escalate crime, prostitution and risky behavior by people desperate for access.
To deny water to the weak and vulnerable violates every sense of human decency and social justice.
It is difficult to predict the number and scale of tragedies that may result from this policy but from experience we can predict that women and children will bear the brunt of it, and it is clearly dangerous to proceed without caution.
I thought again of Lydia, Mr. Mayor, when you were scolding the jobless youth from your high chair in council. You labelled them “useless” and called on parents to throw their jobless children onto the street, yet only a few months ago you were looking for voter support from those same youth.
That is why I am writing to express my concern, Mr. Mayor, because many young people thought you were on their side, but now you are first in line to cut their water and punish them for an economic crisis they didn’t cause.
* Not her real name.
A version of this letter was first published by The Namibian on 23 April 2021.