Many people living in Harare benefited from the cancellation of municipal account arrears at the end of June, wiping out their accumulated debts since billing started in US dollars early in 2009. They were urged then to now keep up to date and not get back into debt or accumulate large, almost unpayable arrears.
Some unfortunately did not heed this advice. They are still not paying and now the Harare City Council has started cutting their water supplies.
This move is necessary and we cannot see what else the city council can do.
The council itself was at fault before for allowing large debts to accumulate to levels where no ordinary person could pay. Fortunately, council is now moving in early to stop that happening again.
The excuses offered by some who are crying over cut water have little merit. Some say they do not get much water; if that was true then a water cut-off should not affect them. But it does.
The odd day that most residents go without water would be considered a luxury to those north and east of the escarpment that rings half the city.
The second excuse is that the council billing system is a mess. Well parts of it are perhaps far from perfect. But most city council bills are made up of stable fixed charges: land rate, improvement rate, sewer fee, refuse removal fee and the basic minimum water charge, which you pay even if you get no water, and covers the first batch of water that you use.
If you are careful with water, for example not using city council water on a garden, most families can flourish on that minimum.
The important point to realise is that the water component of this basic account is not the bulk of the account. The other charges are always higher.
The only fluctuating charge is the charge for water use greater than the basic ration. That can be weird at times since, like all meter reading charges, it is often based on an estimate rather than actual consumption.
The easy way out of this dilemma is for households to read their own meter and work out themselves their monthly consumption. They can then work out, if necessary with help from an area office, how much they owe and pay it, keeping up to date until a meter reader finally gets to their home and an accurate figure is obtained.
Indeed we would urge the city council to help residents and itself in this way. It would be relatively easy to print a simple table on the municipal account where the resident simply fills in the number on the meter and the correct charge is automatically calculated when the account is presented for payment.
Cheats could easily be deterred by charging them a significant surcharge when caught.
In any case we doubt whether a family who pays all basic charges, including the water minimum charge, will be put at the top of the disconnect list, at least for a month or two. That gives everyone enough time to find the real charge.
And as we have said before the whole water part of the bill could be eliminated by following Zesa’s example and installing pre-paid water meters. Then there would be no arguments at all.
The rest of the bill is made up purely of fixed charges.
Residents must realise that the city council does need income to run efficiently, or even at all. Millions of dollars are needed each day to run the water works, and now even more will soon be needed to pay installments on the Chinese loan raised to fix the mess. Garbage trucks run on diesel, road mending is done by workers, not slaves.
We can complain, and must complain, about council inefficiencies. But refusing to pay bills is not the solution to these; it only makes them worse and raises the suspicion that the non-payer has other motives. If matters reach a head then an audit will find what value we get.
We must also remember that all charges were at some stage approved by the minister responsible for local government, or at least that he did not object to them.
When the city sets charges these cannot be implemented until objections are heard. Some may be trivial or wrong, but they must, by law, be considered and either be accepted or overturned with reasons given. And most objecting did have a vote in the election. This is the council they voted in.