Water is a heavenly gift, which is unfortunately not always available. Cape Town is experiencing its worst drought in 100 years and has only 60 day’s water left. Two consecutive years of water crisis has left almost 40 million people at risk in 17 African countries. The Horn of Africa is facing its third consecutive year of devastating drought, decimating crops and livestock, causing famine and disease.
Everyone should now realize their responsibility to conserve this scarce and valuable resource. In 2002 UNESCO declared access to clean water a basic human right, indispensable for a healthy and dignified life. Sophisticated infrastructure is required for managing, storing and reticulation of water to best serve communities. People can no longer be expected to collect water from dams and rivers.
Rapid urbanization and population growth, coupled with climate change, is escalating competition for water allocation and is creating conflict between the value of water (tariffs) and the rights of different consumer groups. Most water supply systems are public investments for social improvement. It is invariably subsidized, as consumer’s contributions are not able to cover the cost of maintenance and operation of the system.
Prepaid meters were installed in some low income areas in the UK since 1990, but were subsequently outlawed due to the negative social and economic impact. Poverty is one of the root challenges in the water sector, manifesting itself in the inability to pay for water services. The adverse effect on poor or jobless households has to be considered, because if one cannot pay upfront, one is unable to access water.
There are advantages, though. After initial push-back from civic organizations, prepaid metering is gaining acceptance. The benefit is that the consumer can budget and plan ahead to avoid unexpected bills or penalties for over-consumption. Payment can now be made electronically. Utilities do not have to maintain expensive billing systems and related staff costs and bad debts are eliminated.
However, this solution has a high cost of equipment and infrastructure and requires higher qualified staff instead of lower paid meter readers. Prepaid vendors require expensive infrastructure to operate their systems, which is recovered through added vending fees.
It is essential to monitor meters constantly to ensure the integrity of the system. Unmonitored meters can easily be bypassed and taken off the grid without being noticed. Another risk is vandalism. Due to the inability to pay for water, users may damage meters to get free water.
Post Paid Metering
Conventional meters require very little maintenance and initial installation cost is much lower than pre-paid meters. However, the infrastructure required for reading and billing is labour intensive and costly. Meters are only read once a month and unequal reading periods makes it difficult to apply statistical analysis. Most leaks are only detected or reported when disputes arise. Authorities lose approximately 40% of potable water due to leaks and other losses (non-revenue water) so timely reporting is essential to curb losses. The risk for both parties is over-consumption which may lead to the inability of the consumer to pay, resulting in bad debts, penalties and fines.
A compromise has to be found as there are pros and cons for conventional and pre-paid systems. Effective water management has to consider the social needs, requirements and convenience of communities. A combination of conventional pre-paid and restrictions may be a solution, incorporating a tariff system with subsidies for poorer areas.
During droughts, restrictions can be enforced by a daily allocation of a pre-set volume of water. It treats everyone equally and the affluent cannot get away with just paying a fine, as fines do not save water. The valve can be re-set to conventional or pre-paid metering when required. Indigent communities may be allocated a pre-determined volume of water. More affluent areas can be set to a pre-paid system, essentially cross subsidizing of communities. Devices such as the iMvubu valve from Amanzi Meters have been specifically designed for this purpose.
Moreover according to Adriano Moreira of Precision Water Meters in South Africa, smart water meters are the way into the future, they are Ultrasonic, with no movable parts, facilitating the exact measure of liquid water to be measured. No “air” will be measured. The convenience to read, manage and account from the office with very little or no Human intervention in the field with a lifetime of 10 years. It is the basis of a complete water management system.