Background and context
From 2012 to present Ghana has been going through a severe economic stress which has turned the imposition of the feared pre-paid water meters more into a question of “when” than “if”. Underlining the fear are three issues. The first, relates to high budget deficits in national budgets which have limited the ability of Government to provide the required subventions to utility agencies, not to mention accumulated and unpaid debts owed the agencies by Government. At the close of 2012 the country recorded a deficit of $4.6bn about 12.1% of GDPi. The second issue, a consequence of the first is an IMF/World Bank bailoutii which was arranged in 2013 resulting in austerity policies including doubling down on the demand for full cost recovery in public services. Observers of the sector knew well what to expect from this supplication to the IMF/World Bank particularly closely following a bitter public face-off between the World Bank and the Public Utility Regulatory Commission where the Bank accused the Commission of incompetence because they had not managed tariff adjustments properly, and tariffs have for a long time had remained frozeniii. The adjustment in reference is only reviewed upwards per the history of the Commission. The third issue is an energy crisis that has saddled the country and which has increased the cost of doing business for most enterprises including the Ghana Water Company Limited (GWCL). The three issues together, are having a serious toll on the operations of the Ghana Water Company Limited.
This is the economic environment that the public GWCL has been operating under since it took over from the private contractor Aqua Vitens Rand Limited, pushing it to adopt certain steps which the human right to water campaign in Ghana has had cause to mobilize against.
Prepaid Water Implementation – First Attempt (January, 2014)
The first attempt at introducing the prepaid water metering policy after an earlier unsuccessful piloted scheme about a decade ago was in January of 2014. The announcement was sudden without any prior hint by the public or followers of the sector. The Company through its Public Relations Officer Mr. Michael Agyemang announced the formation of a Committee which was to see to the successful implementation of the policy to curtail losses incurred by the companyiv. The immediate public opposition to the policy was fierce. Negative experiences learned from an existing electricity prepayment regime contributed to the wide outburst of disapproval. Human right to water activists in the country therefore spent barely a fortnight in mainly media campaigns to persuade the Parliamentary Committee on Works and Housing to stall the policy.
Prepaid Water Implementation – Second Attempt (July, 2015)
The second push for implementation of the policy was in July of 2015. The Acting Managing Director of the GWCL announced that all was set for the rollout of the prepaid meters in the following month. He provided the following as reasons why the action has again become necessary;v
- avoid incurring unnecessary losses emanating from non-payment of water bills by most consumers”
- Struggle to collect bills from consumers”
- Violent attacks and molestations against GWCL workers in their quest to collect water bills or disconnect people who are engaged in illegal tapping of water”
The Managing Director whose focus was on domestic users failed to tell the journalists that about 61%vi of the accumulated debt of the company was owed by the Government of Ghana, and the remaining by businesses and domestic users. He therefore failed to show how debts owed to it by the Government will be recovered through a prepaid water regime. The other contradictions in the policy were raised in a press statement issued by the Water Citizens Network of Ghana.
Introduction of Water Scratch Cards (June, 2016)
After the two recent unsuccessful push for prepaid water metering, the Ghana Water Company Limited appeared to have conceded to one of its weak points – revenue collection. The Company announced in June of 2016 the introduction and piloting of Water Scratch Cardsvii, an attempt to leverage mobile technology to improve on its revenue collection efforts. This, for activists who have previously pointed out this weakness, is an indicator that policy makers influencing the company are beginning to come into terms with the intense public aversion to prepaid water meters and perhaps are beginning to focus on their own contribution to the problem. Despite the company having found a potential means to deal with its internal challenge of revenue collection, there still could be challenges to the human right to water based on how this policy is implemented. As we learnt from the company, they are getting disconnection teams ready to complement this policy.
If the company is to use possible gains from the low collection expenditure that mobile technology provides; and is to push such gains to disconnection efforts then there will be consequences for low-income and households without incomes at all. On the other hand resistance to disconnections and frustration by the company in not realizing the assumptions which informed the water scratch cards policy may push the desperate company back into the arms of the prepaid water metering advocates within and outside of the Government. Such is the dilemma.