The #GovernmentsPayYourWaterBills campaign took off in 2020, backed by WIN, End Water Poverty, SWIM (Solutions for Water Integrity and Management), and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). We investigated utilities in 18 countries and found that 95% of respondents reported cases of non-payment of water bills by public institutions, including for water services to public office buildings or military, and police facilities.
Overall, the collection rate for public customers is consistently lower than for private customers. And, in at least 10% of cases, the reason for non-payment is linked to abuse of power or undue interference.
These late or missing payments by public institutions have direct impact on the ability of utilities to provide service.
They hamper the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation and highlight a lack of accountability. There are ways to address the issue: these require determination and concerted action from stakeholders and public institutions.
With these findings in hand, SWIM teamed up with partners in five countries (Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, Nepal, Zambia) to investigate the situation in specific contexts and advocate for change.
In Zambia, a local campaign led by the NGO WASH Forum was launched in 2020 and was particularly successful. They organised radio discussions to raise public awareness on the issue and engaged with the Minister of Water Development to discuss sector financing, debt, and outstanding water bills of public institutions. In a positive move for accountability, the Zambian Parliament requested that NGO WASH Forum and partners submit a response to the National Auditor General’s report on commercial water utilities in November 2020.
The SWIM team caught up with Bubala Muyovwe, the National Coordinator of the Zambia NGO WASH Forum, for her take on the campaign and next steps.
Were you surprised that 95% of utility companies surveyed report non-payment of water bills by public institutions?
Bubala Muyovwe: I was not surprised that non-payment was reported. But I did not foresee the magnitude of the situation. I also had little idea about how payments are made or how the debt is managed. In a 2018 budget address, the Honourable Minister of Finance did mention that the ministry were unbundling debt. That’s when I first realised that the government had a history of non-payment.
What was the situation in Zambia at the time of your research in terms of government non-payment?
Bubala: When we started the research, an audit carried out by the Auditor General revealed that nearly 475 million kwacha (26 million USD) was outstanding in terms of unpaid bills. This was in line with figures we received from the National Water Supply and Sanitation Council (NWASCO). In 2020 the government reduced some of the debt, also by carrying out debt swaps with other entities, like the electricity company and the tax authority.
Was government non-payment previously a topic of discussion within the water sector and/or civil society?
Bubala: Honestly, no. I would like to think that a conversation took place between NWASCO, the regulator, and the utility companies. Perhaps they were trying to find strategies for dealing with the situation because it was hindering the operational capacity and efficiency of many utilities. As a civil society group, we didn’t have much experience with these problems. When the Auditor General’s report on the performance of the utility companies came out—just before we signed up for the campaign—it became clear that there were several issues related to the management of utilities, and we began to think about ways to discuss these.
Who would you say is most affected by government non-payment in Zambia?
Bubala: Ultimately, it is the small community user, the private user. Access is already a challenge, and the government has recently expanded the mandate of the commercial utilities. Previously, coverage by commercial utilities was restricted to urban and peri-urban areas. Their mandate has now increased to include rural areas, where much more of the population lives. To increase and improve access in rural areas and attain the Sustainable Development Goals requires considerable investment.
What was your approach for the campaign?
Bubala: We first focused on getting information from the key actors. NWASCO was instrumental in helping us understand sector power dynamics. Initially, we also tried to reach out to the commercial utilities. A few were able to provide some information, but overall this approach didn’t yield many positive results and we changed our strategy.
We then focused on awareness-raising. We ran some social media campaigns and designed several messages for national television. We wanted to sensitise everybody to the issues, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Ministry of Water Development directed commercial utilities not to disconnect water during the pandemic. This added to existing debt, but also created a new dynamic by showing that some users had not been consistently paying their water bills. We therefore came up with a holistic message emphasising everybody’s responsibility to pay for their water use, including government departments, private users, and so on.
During the campaign, we were able to meet with the Honourable Minister of Water Development, Sanitation and Environmental Protection, Dr Jonas Chanda, and his technical staff in late 2020. We discussed debt and took the opportunity to emphasise the importance of assisting the commercial utilities by addressing various governance issues. Non-payment of the utilities is turning into a big problem. To have any chance of attaining our national targets, this is something that cannot keep happening.
What aspects of the campaign would you say were key to its success?
Bubala: Dr Jonas Chanda has since become the Minister of Health, but the meeting with him in late 2020 remains a key success for the campaign as it opened possible paths for collaboration with the health ministry. We’re hoping to follow up to ensure utilities get as much support as possible when debt is dismantled and to find strategies to ensure bills are paid promptly.
In late 2020, the NGO WASH Forum also made a joint submission with WaterAid Zambia to the Committee on Parastatals of the National Assembly to discuss the Auditor General’s report on the water companies. The submission highlights how commercial utilities play a critical role in the realisation of the human right to water and sanitation, gives insight on their performance, and provides recommendations on how to improve the efficiency of their operations to ensure value for money. One recommendation is for government to link funding to operational efficiency of utilities, while looking at ways to address financial leakages and enhancing oversight.
As a Forum, we also discussed with various members of parliament the operational side and impact on utilities of different political decisions, highlighting the need to ensure utilities have the resources to sustain operational costs over the long term.
Did you involve any other stakeholders in the campaign?
Bubala: We are a network of national, regional, and international NGOs, and we brought in a number of our members to plan and formulate the various submissions and engagements with government. We tried to be as participatory as possible. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, some Forum members were already supporting commercial utilities, for example, by providing the necessary water treatment chemicals. They are particularly involved in devising strategies to support utilities. Other members helped share the work with partners and on other platforms. Going forwards, we would like to have a bit more engagement with the public and raise awareness as much as we can.
How would you characterize the changes in the sector so far? What are you most optimistic about?
Bubala: It’s very significant, being able to have the conversation around accountability where debt is concerned. This is a big win for us. We’ve also become a recognised voice, with the national assembly asking us to contribute to the conversation around this key governance issue. That relationship is something to harness to help effect change.
Moving forwards, we hope to see some big improvements and policy changes to strengthen governance in the sector. In terms of leadership, we were sorry to see the Minister of Water Development move to the Ministry of Health but it is valuable that we now have a WASH ambassador in the health sector. We see a great opportunity for him to champion some of our causes. At a recent courtesy meeting, the new Minister of Water Development, Sanitation, and Environmental Protection, the Honourable Raphael Nakachinda, has demonstrated good leadership and a willingness to collaborate with the Forum. We see potential to collaborate with the government and continue to strengthen the sector.
Thank you Bubala for your insight on the campaign and all the best going forward!
Bubala Muyovwe is a health psychologist, soon-to-be lawyer, and a human rights activist. She is the National Coordinator of the Zambia NGO WASH Forum. She has worked for 10 years in the water and sanitation sector in Zambia to influence policy and practice through advocacy.
SWIM (Solutions for Water Integrity and Management) is an NGO based in Dresden, Germany, working for a world in which every person has unconditional, conflict-free access to water and sanitation.