8 September 2012

Zambia: Revamp Water Utility Firms

ONE popular slogan currently in vogue which is bandied about by water utility firms is summarised in three words -- water is life.

This is a truism, and we share the view that it is almost impossible for anybody to adduce arguments against this catchy phrase.

But equally beyond dispute is one sordid fact: Millions of people in our country do not have access to clean and safe drinking water.

It has become a scarce commodity which is accessed by a privileged minority while the bulk of consumers are left to fend for themselves, and most of them rely on contaminated wells and other sources whose quality leaves much to be desired.

This is a serious indictment against all those involved in the management of the water sector, particularly the main water utility firms that have lamentably failed to enhance their capacity to provide clean and safe drinking water to the growing population in our country.

Although we welcome the appointment of new Boards of Directors for the water utility firms, we hope the new directors will not continue with business as usual, but will bring along new ideas, innovation and a change of attitude so as to bring about the desired change in the way water utility firms are run and managed.

There is urgent need for most of the companies in the water sector to access funding to undertake major works that will entail uprooting the antiquated infrastructure in most towns and cities and roll out modern equipment to curtail wastage of water through leakages, and also aid the expansion programmes in order to ensure more people have access to clean and safe drinking water.

Zambia's economy is growing, and there is a concomitant demand for improved and efficient service delivery on all fronts. Water is critical to peoples' lives, more so because it has no substitute. All forms of life are dependent on water for survival.

In spite of the visible expansion of our cities, there appears to be no deliberate strategy to widen the clientele base so as to grow the business as the water firms have continued to rely on traditional customers in the old townships.

Business opportunity in the emergent residential areas is glossed over and lame excuses are often advanced to justify the current laissez-faire approach.

We concur with the sentiments of the Minister of Local Government and Housing, Emerine Kabanshi, who has implored the new boards to ensure that they give strategic guidance and direction to the respective companies they will oversee.

There are massive opportunities to be tapped which are going begging due to lack of foresight and management skills by the people entrusted with the management of some of the water firms. They are not forward-looking, and this accounts for the tribulations of thousands of people currently craving for water in the midst of plenty simply because the service providers are content with stagnation.

Evidence abounds in the capital, Lusaka, of up-market areas where residents have invested a lot of money to build modern houses, but these residential areas are now riddled with boreholes due to lack of access to piped water. Lusaka Water and Sewerage Company has lamentably failed to tap the business potential in the new residential areas.

This level of lassitude is unacceptable and speaks volumes about the ills afflicting the water sector.

The so-called lack of capacity or financial muscle to expand the business is not the real issue; the problem is crass incompetence of the individuals manning most of these companies.

Most projects are driven by politicians, and not the managers who are paid for manning these companies. This is the mindset which the new boards should change if the water sector is to witness meaningful change for the better.

When change takes place, the motto "water is life" will not just be an empty slogan which all the managers in this sector continue to regurgitate; the slogan will have much more meaning when access to clean and safe drinking water becomes a reality for all.

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