NGOs gang against NRWB prepaid meters project, pen World Bank

Some local non-governmental organization (NGOs) have teamed up, challenging the pre-paid meters project Northern Region Water Board (NRWB) is currently implementing and have since written World Bank, funding the scheme, to suspend it, pending further review.

The NGOs led by Citizen for Justice (CFJ) and Institute for Policy Interaction (IPI) demanding significantly redesign or abandon of the project, arguing there were no environmental and social assessments done before implementation.

However, NRWB argues the project met all requirements to be rolled out and that its pilot phase is currently progressing positively. The project is being implemented with funding from the World Bank through the National Water Development Project to the tune of US $500, 000 (about K171million).

Responding to Nyasa Times questionnaire, CFJ official, Reinford Mwangonde disclosed they had sent World Bank two letters in February and March this year requesting its inspection Panel based in Washington DC to investigate project water team and the bank country office’s violations of its own policies and procedures pertaining to the introduction of the project.

Pre-paid water meters
Pre-paid water meters

Mwangonde argued that pre-paid meters undermine access to water for poor and low income families, and that NRWB violated people’s right to participation, free and informed consent as there was no evidence the project financiers and implementers have exercised due- diligence.

“The Water Board did not consult let alone seek resident’s consent in piloting the project. Such technology has proved to have high failure rates, leading to an increase in unjustified water cut offs (for example, Orange Farm Township in South Africa). The letter was sent in view of the negative social impacts that will arise from this project. The project will deny people of their right to water,” he said.

The NGOs are arguing that the project does not consider the impact it would have on girls and women in communities who have the burden, in most cases walking an average of 6 kilometres, in search of water, and that it would force them backward into traditional role as water carriers, undermines educational, and gender equality gains that can be reached through simple improvements in water supply.

They further argue World Bank and private companies were justifying prepaid water meters even though poor households will be paying increasing tariffs for access to clean water as the prepaid water meters do not make access to water cheaper for the poor.

They also noted that the project would force families, unable to pay for prepaid services, to use alternative, but unprotected, water sources, adding the initiative would also exacerbate socio-economic problems the poor families are currently experiencing.

And Mwangonde stated that the country was already struggling to meet millennium development goals such as access to safe and clean water due to its poverty levels, thus the project will make it even harder.

“This touches on the right to water which contains both freedoms and entitlements; the right to maintain access to existing water supplies necessary for the right to water, and the right to be free from interference, such as the right to be free from arbitrary disconnections or contamination of water supplies. Consultations would allow residents to decide whether they want to be part of the pilot project or not”.

He claimed that residents were discovering that the project has hidden costs, which are transferred to the consumer such as a daily meter cost of K53.00 suspected to be a meter cost and not for water consumption. And residents who used to pay an average of about $10 a month are now paying $15.

He also the project would negatively affect child headed households who have no source of stable income and will have serious challenges adapting to the system.

“A number of school going children will also suffer the impact as the new system may not support the water and sanitation structures found in most public schools which are tailored toward the current system in the piloted area and across the country. The project will also increase water borne diseases and will slow down the efforts by other donors on water and sanitation”

According to Mwangonde, the NGOs are not satisfied with World Bank’s response which promised would make sure the pilot project is in compliance with safeguards polices, complaining that If the bank was serious about safeguard compliance, would have ensured that the project is subjected to that from day one.

“We attempted to address our concerns with Northern Region Water Board, but our efforts proved futile. We even engaged with the Ministry of Water Development and Irrigation, but the outcomes of the meeting were disappointing”.

However, in responding to the issue, NRWB Public Relations Manager, Edward Nyirenda the project has been receiving overwhelming response and that they were connecting customers on voluntary basis.

Nyirenda said: “we are still connecting customers on prepaid and the system is being implemented according to plan and is working very well. So far, from mid-May to now, we have already connected up to 400 customers and we are still connecting and on a daily basis, we are getting not less than 10 applications from all corners of Mzuzu and beyond requesting us to give them prepaid meters”.

He said NRWB was implementing the project on voluntary basis that customers willing to be part of the prepaid revolution must apply, adding they have put in place a monitoring and evaluation process which will help the institution make a decision after six months on its next course of action.

“From the moment we started installation, we have always been in touch with customers and we conduct visits to assess how the prepaid meter is fairing; so far we are satisfied with the pilot. Customers also have an opportunity to opt out of the pilot prepaid water meter.

“Our goal is to have only those that want prepaid meters to be part of the pilot project. We have a limited number of prepaid meters in stock and we are installing on first come first serve basis. Since this is a pilot project the Board welcomes anyone for discussions if they have suggestions or concerns about the prepaid system, it is the first of its kind in Malawi,” Nyirenda explained.

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