29 June 2012

Namibia: Why Allow Water Debts to Accumulate Into Millions?


FROM Katima Mulilo, Okakarara, Arandis and Rehoboth to Opuwo and Karibib a song with a familiar ring resonates through these towns' municipal corridors.

Hardly a month passes by without media reports about one or the other town struggling to keep its head above water and having to contend with a massive water debt often running into millions of dollars.

What normally follows are wholesale water cuts that result in the affected towns veering off the civilization chart and compelling the hapless residents to resort to using untreated river water or having to devise other ways and means to get water.

But before we delve into the question of the water crisis facing many struggling towns, we should from the outset indicate that Namwater was founded as a bulk water supplier. But this role appears to have become complicated when the water utility company was mandated to operate on a cost-recovery basis.

Namwater has previously argued that it spends money to maintain and to expand the water supply and distribution network and will therefore be crippled and fail to fulfill its mandate if it does not operate on a cost-recovery basis.

But coming back to the topic at hand, we ask the question why does Namwater's debt management allow municipal debt to balloon to crisis proportions? For instance, why did Namwater allow villagers near Okakarara to accumulate a debt of N$2 million and in the process creating a catastrophic problem?

How does Namwater expect this village to redeem such a huge water debt without jeopardizing its very communal existence?

Why allow a town, such as Rehoboth, to accrue a huge debt of nearly N$30 million, when we all know the majority of its residents are people without jobs or simply struggling to survive. Why allow such debts to balloon to crisis proportions?

Why not effect the water cuts when this debt is still relatively small and manageable? The other question that arises is - is there a human right to sufficient or adequate water? We say there is!

This was also the question, a few years ago, before South Africa's Constitutional Court in what is also known as "the Phiri case" which was that country's first test case on the right to water.

Five poor residents of Phiri in Soweto, one of the poorest urban areas south-west of Johannesburg developed as a black township during the apartheid era, sued the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry over their right to water.

The crux of their argument was that everyone has a right to have access to sufficient water and that the city of Johannesburg's disconnections at the time were unfairly discriminatory under section 9 of the South African constitution. Whether the court ruled in their favour or dismissed their case is immaterial, because these destitute South Africans presented very compelling legal arguments.

They demonstrated that the constitutionality of the water disconnections could be challenged, because many people are being denied access to water - a deprivation that infringes on the most basic of human rights.

Water is a human right, because none of us can do without it. While we understand that Namwater has a legal obligation to fulfill, we also submit that denying any Namibian citizen access to water immediately deprives that person of his/her dignity and imperils the right to life and that could raise fundamental constitutional issues.

What also complicates this issue is the fact that the wholesale water cuts are indiscriminate and they affect all and sundry since even those residents who have paid their water bills in full are caught in the crossfire and also end up without water.

Namwater should, as a matter of urgency, remedy some of the shortcomings in its debt department and as a responsible corporate citizen should put a stop to the current practice of allowing municipal water debts to reach unsustainable proportions.

Also, everyone knows that the water supply and distribution network in most of the country is old and probably in need of rehabilitation. Often water losses in this country that are leading to these astronomical debts are the result of old and leaking pipes.

We also appeal to the water utility to engage its stakeholders and to find ways to address the reasons why people fail to fulfill their civic duties and possibly engage in a sensitization campaign rather than to undertake punitive action like a parent, who uses the rod to instill discipline in a wayward son.

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