By Anna Kristina Mayr
Digital pre-paid water meters have been successfully introduced for piped water supply in African countries including South Africa, Tanzania and Namibia. In low-income households and at public water points they have tremendous potential to increase service delivery and to reduce operational costs.
Where customers often have difficulty meeting monthly bills, pre-paid water meter technology eases the burden. Customers are able to load “water-airtime” on a token (small digital device) in amounts convenient for them, or buy scratch cards on a daily basis and pay for water as they consume it.
Pre-paid water meters at public water points have many advantages for both the utility or private operator and the customer. The most immediate benefit is a more affordable rate per jerrycan (canister), as no vendors or middlemen are needed at kiosks or public stand posts. At the same time, the lower price per jerrycan enables people to afford larger quantities of water and thus increases sales – more so as water is readily available at pre-paid meters 24 hours a day.
Critics may argue that pre-paid systems limit access to only those who can pay upfront. There are, however, technical solutions to this: the system can for example be programmed to provide a limited amount of water on credit (which will be deducted the next time the customer loads his token) or avail free “basic water”.
On the management side, pre-paid water meters enhance credit control as water is only supplied after payment. Customers can pay for their water on a daily basis instead of being confronted with a large bill at the end of the month, which they might be unable to settle. With the new technology, the operator avoids unpaid bills and unprofitable disconnections – just as mobile phone providers reduce risks and costs through pre-paid airtime systems. Pre-paid water meters contribute to a reduction in operational costs as they allow easy digital meter reading and key operational data (including water consumption, peak time, and number of customers) can be retrieved in a single operation. Consumption data is stored and can be used for business monitoring and planning.
In the Ugandan capital, Kampala, the National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) has successfully completed piloting pre-paid water meter technology at public water points with financial support from development partners (including German Development Cooperation). In the framework of recent research carried out by GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit ), residents of the low-income area of Kisenyi in Kampala appreciated the new technology as a safer and much more affordable source of water for their families: “It is affordable” and “we can never use more water than we have the money to pay for”. Therefore “NWSC does not need to disconnect us anymore, because we cannot pay our bills”. And “there’s a pre-paid meter near every household.” Not only are the new pre-paid metered standpipes closer to homes; access has also improved in terms of hours of supply: “You can use them 24/7. [Before] the tab was closed when the vendor had no time to sell water or when he wanted to sleep.”
With support from the Reform of Urban Water and Sanitation Sector Programme (RUWASS) of the German Development Cooperation, the Ugandan Ministry of Water and Environment is now piloting digital pre-paid meter technology at public water points in the
Koboko Town Council (West Nile Region). In this fast- growing town close to the South Sudanese and Congolese borders, so far only 11 per cent of the over 45,000 residents have had access to piped water. With the installation of 24 public pre-paid meter water points in low-income areas, safe water is made accessible to the town’s poor at an affordable rate.
During the initial phase 1,500 poor households received a personal token to access water from nearby pre-paid meter standpipes. Without paying extra fees to water vendors and middlemen, about 9,000 people now access safe water at half the cost they used to pay at the few existing conventional piped public water points.
“It’s a new technology in Koboko that has been received with a lot of excitement,” says Emmanuel Banya, Town Clerk Koboko Town Council. “As a local water authority we have the biggest challenge of whether the current water sources will be able to adequately supply water to the increasing population of Koboko Town Council. Having said that, the benefits of the technology are enormous.”
However successful in other African countries, in Uganda, pre-paid water meters still come at a relatively high investment cost compared to conventional mechanical meters. It is therefore an investment that needs to be well planned, taking into consideration economies of scale and rational distribution throughout the supply area to promote easy access and maximum sales. Social marketing for the public and technical training for the operators are also required. The German Development Cooperation Agency, GIZ, isworking closely with the Ugandan Ministry of Water and Environment and local authorities throughout the planning, design and implementation phases. At the local level, cooperation takes place with regard to staff training and integration of O&M mechanisms as well as in conducting community awareness campaigns.
If the testing phase in Koboko town runs smoothly, the potential for up-scaling pre-paid meter technology in the Ugandan water sector, with its over 100 small towns, is very promising. Although safe water coverage has increased steadily over the last decade, about 46 per cent of the population in small towns still has no access to improved water supply.
The rapid urbanization and unplanned settling in peri-urban areas add to the challenges of meeting people’s demands for affordable and safe water supply. Even with their relatively high investment costs, pre-paid meters have the potential to offer medium-term cost benefits as infrastructure is not likely to be abandoned owing tonon-payment of bills. Moreover, pre-paid meters can be monitored more easily, thus reducing system failures and O&M costs and helping with demand-oriented planning. Other than permanent structures such as water kiosks, pre-paid meter standpipes can be re-located relatively easily, as neighbourhoods develop and people gain private connections over time. With new suppliers entering the market and with the option of bulk purchases, it should also be possible to bring the costs per unit down drastically and thus increase even further the technology’s up-scaling potential.
Anna Kristina Mayr
Reform of the Urban Water and Sanitation Sector Programme, Uganda Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH