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Free water connection: Is it a quick fix or time bomb?

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DECLARED WATER CONNECTIONS FREE— Chakwera

By Jerry Ben Sakala:

The President [Lazarus Chakwera]’s declaration last week, to the effect that water connections will now be free, is quite a bad idea in my opinion. I would say that this is being on track but off target.

I am not a politician, so I will not belabour myself with political arguments as to why this is a bad idea despite it being a campaign promise (on track). So, I will not argue that this move is against the current Public Sector Reforms drive aimed at turning parastatals from loss-making into profitable firms. I will not also say that the move may fuel corruption, as the powerful (financially or politically) will be the first to be served while the povos remain sidelined. These are political arguments; so, I will not delve into this area.

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My arguments, instead, will dwell on the spirit that bore the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Specifically, the blood and flesh of SDG number 6.

To begin with, SDG 6 aims to ensure that there is availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. In extension, target number one of this goal states that, by 2030, nations shall ensure that there is improved equitable access and affordable safe drinking water for all. In my heart, I have underlined, ‘sustainable management’, ‘equitable’ and ‘affordable’.

There is a clear call that water supply will have to be sustainably managed. Water boards will definitely need money to connect and sustain production of safe water. Where will they, therefore, get the money to offset the revenue forgone by this declaration? Hiked tariffs? Government subventions? I surely see water boards being relegated back to their death beds and I further see Malawi failing to earnestly pursue and achieve SDG 6 (off target).

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Secondly, I find the declaration not being in tandem with the call for equitable access. By making connections free for all, the poor will, without doubt, remain marginalised. Since the boards will now be loaded with applications for connections, the poor will not have a voice loud enough to call the service providers to serve them. This will now be about survival of the fittest. SDG 6 will be missed again.

Thirdly, the SDG’s mention of water being affordable means that every citizen on the globe has a responsibility to pay for water. In this era, when the song on everybody’s lips is mindset change, I guess it is high time we all started to accept the reality that water is a scarce resource and it does not come free.

Even rain water is never free, as it has to be paid for through our commitment to plant and conserve trees. It is actually an open secret that we must all pay for water because safe water does not fall like manna. It is produced.

However, it must be affordable. For sure, affordable, in this case, does not mean free. If implemented, this declaration has the potential to bring ripple effects, as later people will demand that they do not pay water bills as well.

Fourthly, apart from this declaration suffocating water boards, non State actors (non-governmental organisations, donors etc) who serve rural communities will also be negatively affected. Communities are always encouraged to contribute some funds in order to benefit from a safe water point. Where reticulated systems are developed, local committees are encouraged to run these systems as a business. One way is to bill beneficiaries and to charge for individual household connections. The funds collected are meant to be used for managing and sustaining the water points or systems.

With this declaration or policy, will the folks in rural areas ever again be willing to pay for these services while their relatives in town get connected for free? I so much doubt.

So, even though the President has the welfare of the masses at heart, and that this is probably what motivated him to give this policy direction, it may not be too late to rescind it because it is a suicidal move.

It is self-destructive, economically and development-wise, to encourage a culture of freebies amongst the citizenry. This move will either kill water boards or kill us with high taxes or kill us with high tariffs. This move has the potential to negativley affect water access rather than promoting it. This move is bad.

Let us save water. Let us pay for it.

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