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Is This What Efficiency Looks Like? Prepaid Water Meters
The World Bank claims that prepaid water meters can "facilitate cost-recovery and accelerate private sector participation in provision of water services."[i] The World Bank continues to force the privatization of water even though it undermines access to clean and affordable water.
What is a prepaid water meter?
There are several types of prepaid water meters but the idea behind them is the same. If you cannot pay upfront, you are unable to access water. Water from prepaid water meters typically cost more than water billed from the utility. As a result, those in most need are denied access to water.
In the United States, the typical prepaid water meter is used in areas without access to water infrastructure. The users are poor, often immigrant workers, who travel long distances to collect water from the meters. To get water you drop quarters into the slot and place your bucket at the faucet.
A similar type of meter has been used in South Africa where prepaid water meters replaced previous free communal standpipes in rural townships. The meter worked by inserting a plastic card with a chip that could be bought for R60 (US$9). In order to get more water, money can be added to the card at a store.
Other prepaid types of prepaid water meters are used in individual homes – this system was used in the United Kingdom.
In the Philippines, a new solar-powered water pumping station works with prepaid cards. Each user needs an AquaCard which is inserted into a meter attached to a solar pumping station. When water is dispensed the card is debited. A microchip in the card indicates when it needs to be recharged by the water user at a community bank.
Where are they being used?
Prepaid water meters are widely used in South Africa and the water meter industry there is hoping for an export adventure. But prepaid water meters are also used in countries such as Brazil, United States, The Philippines, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Brazil, Nigeria, and Curacao.
Prepaid water meters can no longer be used in the United Kingdom where they were declared illegal in 1998 for public health reasons – they were also abandoned in a project in South Africa after a massive cholera outbreak.
What is the community response?
Increased cost recovery, water meters and especially the use of prepayment meters can divide neighbors from each other. A faulty tap in one’s own house was not a problem when neighbors could share water. When water becomes an expensive market commodity, social cohesion erodes in neighborhoods and communities. The result is that basic rights become privileges that are earned only by the depth of ones’ pocket.
Families are forced to decrease their consumption of water and to make difficult trade-offs between food, medicines, school fees or water. Such hard decisions rest mainly on women who are humiliated in their desperate need for water. As a result, women and children go back to fetching water from polluted sources at long distances instead of benefiting from improved infrastructure.
Water is a human right not a market commodity
As water becomes an increasingly scarce resource, global corporations, many governments, and international financial institutions such as the World Bank, argue that water should be allocated through market mechanisms. They argue for full cost recovery from users and enact policies to end public subsidies, a water lifeline, or other social pricing policies that ensure universal access to clean and affordable water. Prepaid water meters are a result of such negative policies and deny access to those in most need.
In the News:
[i]World Bank (1994) "World Development Report 1994: Infrastructure and development"
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