Published on: 20/01/2020
Discussions on meeting SDG 6 typically focus on the financing gap and how to improve water utility performance and creditworthiness. Yet, there is one issue I have never heard any speaker discuss publicly: Too often, governments don’t pay their own water bills to utilities.
When customers don’t pay their water bills, utilities typically send warnings and then disconnect the water supply if these are ignored. This process is set out in a utility’s credit control policy. But when the customer is a military compound or a parliamentary office building, the utility often chooses not to disconnect the water supply, even when payments are long overdue and repeated requests are ignored. Lotte Feuerstein from the Water Integrity Network described how armed soldiers “visited” the managers of a Kenyan water utility after their compound had been disconnected. Unsurprisingly, utility managers fear losing their jobs if they direct public attention towards government institutions’ unpaid water bills.
Water utilities providing services in capital cities are more prone to this problem. As Christopher Gasson from Global Water Intelligence (GWI) explained to me, the profitability of the Rabat water concession was always lower than the Casablanca concession largely due to the higher number of government buildings in Morocco’s capital city.
When a utility is starved of resources it cannot improve services for its customers, nor can it expand the network to the underserved. Moreover, governments who do not pay their own bills are unlikely to lead reforms necessary to improve utility performance.
On the positive side, getting government institutions to pay their water bills in full is a notable feature of many successful utility turnarounds. Effective utility CEOs have taken such actions in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, at National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) in Uganda, and in Durban, South Africa. These success stories suggest that getting government to pay its water bills could be an important step in improving the performance of a utility and narrowing the financing gap for SDG 6.
Many stakeholders have a shared interest in addressing this issue and, jointly, can make a difference. What can be done?
Do you know of any good examples of successful strategies to tackle public institutions’ unpaid water bills?
Here is an opportunity to share your experience or opinion publicly: IRC, GIZ, Water Integrity Network, End Water Poverty, and local civil society organisations are planning to host a session titled “Governments, please pay your water bills!” at the 2020 Stockholm World Water Week. Please contact Lotte Feuerstein at LFeuerstein[at]win-s.org for details.
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