Water cuts offer no solution, only more strife

In recent days we’ve heard reports of water cut-offs at towns across the country. New councillors at the helm of near-bankrupt municipalities are eager to balance the books and want the residents to cough up.

Rundu residents fetch water from a communal tap. Photo Contruction Review

Apparently, the only way out of the financial crisis is to get the residents to pay more, but these days — after a five-year economic slump — money is too tight to mention in most households.

At Narraville in Walvis Bay the new council started cutting water supply to households in debt this month. At Aranos in the south people protested vehemently against water cut-offs this week.

Small places like Arandis, as well as big municipalities like Windhoek have also warned their financially stressed residents that mass water cut-offs are imminent if they do not pay up.

The way the narrative is framed it’s just a matter of paying up so council can deliver services, so any failure on the part of council to deliver would be blamed on those residents who failed to pay the bills.

The cut-off policy doesn’t draw any distinction between those who don’t want to pay and those who can’t pay. Many people lost their jobs and families lost breadwinners since the pandemic started and are among the can’t-payers.

We have to look at the context of the current water crisis, which is coupled to the wider economic and political crises in the country. How does it make sense to cut water to a destitute and blind pensioner with children in her care?

Firstly, the economic crisis was not caused by the working class and the poor. Why punish the most vulnerable people for an economic crisis not of their making?

The country had endured four years of economic depression by the time the Covid-19 crisis hit and restrictions kicked in, which hastened the near-total collapse of the economy.

At a policy level, we have to look at the neoliberal policy framework of Swapo. Since Namwater was set up in the late 90s, it was mandated to ‘commercialise’ water services and to raise water prices by 10–20% per annum.

Meanwhile, municipalities lost most of their direct income from electricity sales to the REDs, so they had only two main sources of income: water sales and land sales.

On the one hand, it led to higher land prices as councils sought to fill the revenue gap, but the ‘commercialisation’ — i.e. raising of water prices simultaneously created a household water debt problem, as many fell behind on payments. When the interest on arrears begins to pile up and once lawyers’ fees are added it is often hard to get out of the debt trap.

This resulted in many people losing their homes, which would be sold on auction to recover the debt. So, constantly raising water prices was a way of indebting people and then churning them out of their homes when they cannot pay.

City officials often bought up the houses auctioned off so cheaply. Seen in this light, the household water debt crisis is mainly due to the government’s pricing strategy, which made water increasingly unaffordable to many.

When the government last year March instructed all municipalities to unlock the taps of households whose water had been suspended over debt, it was a direct admission that the neoliberal framework had failed, and that the state needed to provide subsidised water at an affordable rate (or even freely, if needed) to protect public health.

Covid-19 made it clear that neoliberal capitalism represents a threat to public health. To resume water cut-offs now would be to go back on the gains that we made.

It is ironic that some of the people implementing the water cut-offs call themselves ‘progressive forces’, but they are eager to implement such regressive policies that are hostile and dangerous to the poor.

Water cut-offs are a cruel counterproductive policy response to an economic and health crisis, such as we face. It reflects a lack of insight on the part of the councils that are seeking to implement the cuts without any evidence or research about the potential health and socio-cultural impacts of their policy.

The foreseeable consequence of this idiotic policy is that it will escalate hospital and medical expenses to the state and the average household at a time when we can sorely afford it and will likely worsen the pandemic trend, putting people’s lives at risk.

Employees of Neudamm Agriculture College fetch water from a graveyard after the University of Namibia cut off supplies. Photo: The Namibian

We saw this during 2004 when polio broke out at Okahandja Park. It cost the government billions to vaccinate the whole population when it would have cost only a few million dollars to provide basic water services.

This is what the English call being “penny-wise and pound-foolish”, because council might save a few million dollars by not supplying water to the poor, but the state will have to pay billions to deal with the epidemiological consequences.

The fact is that if water to a particular household is cut off and someone in that house becomes infected, then everybody they come in contact with at work, at school, in their neighbourhood is also at risk — although those people may have had nothing to do with the debt — so it is a form of collective punishment.

This is why in the UK, the government outlawed water cut offs in 1999 on public health grounds as health authorities warned water cuts would increase the spread of diseases linked to poor sanitation.

They would take the fight to the top. They would take on the powerful, not the weak and vulnerable. They would demand that central government reinstate the water subsidies it withdrew from municipalities in the early 2000s.

They should look to South Africa where the government implemented a basic free monthly quota of 6000 litres water per household as a form of wealth redistribution and to sustain public health.

The policy of water cuts is a direct attack on the rights of the poorest of the poor. In fact it’s a declaration of war against the poor. And we must take it as such — an invitation to fight for our lives. Those politicians whose first response is to cut off the water of the poor have shown their true colours.

The fight over water rights will in the next period likely overshadow the struggle for land rights, because as everyone knows, a piece of land without access to water is of no use to anyone.

Writer, reporter, activist