Prepaid metering for utilities is a growing trend, as governments and power companies around the world have rolled out prepaid programs that have been shown to save on energy usage and make it easier for low-income consumers to keep the lights on. Now a World Bank study reports that the same benefits may be applicable for prepaid water delivery systems in Africa.
The Limits and Possibilities of Prepaid Water in Urban Africa: Lessons from the Field documents prepaid water metering programs in eight cities in sub-Saharan Africa. The analysis, conducted by the World Bank's Water and Sanitation Program, found that, on the whole, prepaid metering resulted in consumers spending less money on water and feeling more in control of their water consumption.
"Our findings suggest that customers care less about the technology of water services and far more about convenience, price and reliability," said Chris Heymans, lead author of the study. "We found that while prepaid water is not a miracle cure, many utilities and the customers they serve believe that with proper planning and management prepaid systems can bring marked benefits, such as greater control over spending on water, not incurring debt, and less constrained hours of access." The report focused on the African cities of Kampala, Lusaka, Maputo, Maseru, Mogale City, Nakuru, Nairobi, and Windhoek. In the case of Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, prepaid "standpipes" have reduced conflict among residents who once had to share water facilities. Residents with prepaid card accounts are no longer reliant on others to pay their portion of water bills to keep the water on. And consumers now pay approximately half of what it used to cost them when they shared water bills with others, the report said.
However, there are downsides to prepaid water metering in developing regions. "The potential of many prepayment systems is being compromised by unreliable performance, which is inconvenient and frustrating for customers, and onerous and costly for utilities," the report said. "This is not unique to prepaid systems, but as a relatively new approach such problems may make it less attractive to customers and the management of service providers."
Additionally, upfront costs for providers to install prepaid metering systems are substantial and maintaining the systems is also costly. But the report concluded that many utility providers believe the benefits outweigh the costs. "Prepaid water needs to be taken far more seriously in water sector policies and regulatory frameworks and in scaled-up technical support to optimize the opportunities they offer and the risks they pose," the report said.
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