The nexus between paying for water and water availability is usually missed when people discuss matters to do with water resources management.
The largely held misconception is that since water is a natural resource, it can always be available as long as the requirements for a full and proper water cycle are in place. However, nothing can be further from the truth. Water availability cannot be guaranteed when users of the resource do not pay for it.
The Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) and other water managers such as local authorities often find it very hard to collect money from water users, some who even believe that water should be a free commodity.
As a result ZINWA is owed over $141 million in unpaid bills. What is lost on many of these people is that the processes of water resources management are quite complex and require a lot of investment if access to water is to be guaranteed.
Many times, users of raw water such as irrigating farmers have always queried why ZINWA needs money from them for water that is in the dams and other ZINWA managed water bodies. To begin with, the dams and weirs where these farmers get their water from are constructed using money.
The ZINWA managed dams across the country represent investments worth billions of dollars and apart from supplying water to irrigators, these water bodies also supply water to local urban areas for domestic use. The dams also require constant maintenance and rehabilitation to ensure that they remain in a safe state. The maintenance can only be possible when the very people who benefit from the water resources such as farmers, industry and mines pay for the resource.
Without them playing their part in the water resources management chain, they cannot be guaranteed of sustainable service. Payments serve to guarantee water availability.
The same is true for those who use treated water. These are the people who get potable water at their houses from ZINWA run water treatment plants and get billed at the end of the month for their consumption.
The rationale behind charging for the water is to try and recover costs associated with bringing water to the people’s doorsteps. The water is pumped in its raw form from water bodies such as rivers, dams or weirs using equipment and electricity, all which needs to be paid for. At the water treatment plant, the water is treated using a number of water treatment chemicals that are bought largely from private companies that demand cash payments in many instances.
More power and human resources are also required to ensure that the water is pumped to residential areas. The reticulation infrastructure used for the process also needs to be expanded and periodically replaced and rehabilitated for a smooth service. These exercises are capital intensive as well.
The water infrastructure involved, such as the water treatment plants themselves, the reticulation systems and the other inputs such as chemicals and electricity all require money and in terms of the Integrated Water Resources Management Principles, the resource should be viewed as both a social and economic good.
This means it must be able to fund itself and this can only be achieved when water users pay for the commodity. Without payments, availability cannot be guaranteed.