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City of Harare must just cut its losses

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The City of Harare has recently been issuing public notices in the press informing residents of flats and apartments about its intentions to phase out the bulk meter billing system. This, I am certain – is a welcome and noble development among most tenants especially in view of the chaos caused by the Zim dollar – US dollar changeover. Tactless estimates were made and coupled with the new currency being beyond the majority’s reach – this saw tenants accrue and inherit impossible water and rates bills. The state department claims it is currently being owed close to $130 million.

What threatens to derail the process of people acquiring individualized water meters is the rigid precondition that all candidates first clear outstanding accounts of bills accrued on the bulk water meters before submitting their applications.

Meanwhile, last Tuesday Herald’s headlines screamed – Water disconnections loom – with City of Harare promising to soon embark on a massive water disconnection exercise. Flats have been encouraged to defray this by entering into some kind of payment plan with the department, to settle their arrears. The payment plan still includes putting in hefty down payments first before having your arrears staggered. Surely, if people had the thousands demanded by City of Harare, they would have simply paid in the beginning rather than live with this burden hanging over their heads and feeding off their peace of mind.

A lot of households in some of Harare’s most populous suburbs like Mbare, Mabvuku, Tafara, Chizhanje and Kuwadzana were disconnected a long time ago. Is this the best City of Harare can do? It is not as if this will solve the problem. If anything, one would imagine that the 2008-2009 cholera outbreaks left a lasting impression enough to disqualify the option of disconnecting water from the masses. Soon, most of Harare is going to be without running water, and then what? We know they badly need the money, but this cost recovery exercise is as good as futile as it is doomed to fail. People simply do not have that kind of money.

For a country once ravished and traumatized by cholera, I think holding us at ransom with this threat is not the wisest thing to do. City fathers really need to find lasting solutions other than allowing COH to hold the cholera noose above our heads. Essentially that is what they are saying; pay or get ready to die.

I think it is high time the COH cut its losses, calls it quits and moves on. Letting go of all that money would certainly be hard, but that does not dismiss the necessity of doing it. There are times in life when it is more logical to stop doing something that is already failing in order to reduce the amount of time and money being wasted on it.

As a state department, COH has a lot of leeway to exercise that kind of ‘leniency’. I mean, besides the fact that it might be the smartest thing to do, I think it is only fair because these debts were especially a result of circumstances beyond anyone’s control. Everybody knows that the country’s general economic downturn with the subsequent dollarization contributed immensely to these problems, and this is so widespread to the extent that what you can count on one hand, is those who actually do not owe anything to COH.

Much as the COH is insisting on going on like someone who has been grievously wronged, they must remember that we have all had to cut our losses. For instance, imagine what would happen if all former Zim dollar account holders started hectoring the banks about conversion and compensation for all the trillions they lost.

My other submission is, just how legal is the exercise of using estimates (which greatly contributed the huge debts people accrued in the first place). If it is, I think citizens deserve a chance to challenge the validity of charging people what they did not consume. A good way forward is for COH to put good billing systems in place, then start charging reasonably for actual usage. They would be amazed how much people would be motivated and willing to cooperate when given a chance to start on a fresh slate.

Moreover, if COH simply writes off what it is supposedly owed, psychologically this is enabling and good for the ratepayer because their contributions become more meaningful when no longer pitted against an impossible debt that they will never be in a position to offset in this lifetime. Picture this, say someone owes COH an interest- accruing debt of $4000, paying $25 in a month against this is like a drop in the ocean, which does not do much to motivate anyone to pay any more. It is like trying to squeeze water out of a rock, literally. Let’s get real; the majority of citizens either do not have regular sources of income or are civil servants, earning less than $300 per month. With issues of rent, school fees and basic existence, you do the math.

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