Water Board Buckling Under Unpaid Bills

By Thameenah Razeek | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 16 2021

By Thameenah Razeek 

Despite the fact that access to water is a fundamental human right and a vital component of human dignity, every person in Sri Lanka who has access to clean, safe water must pay for the services they receive. Water has been taken for granted as a critical public health need since revolution in hygiene during the Victorian era. The long-term continuation of reforms to water supply is contingent on the collection of utility fees from users to maintain and refurbish the network. But higher rates will not result in increased revenue if a significant proportion of consumers fail to pay their water bills. 

Water and sanitation service providers must be able to operate and remain financially viable in order to serve everyone. This potential, however, is frequently jeopardised due to non-payment, even by Government organisations. Water that has been processed and distributed, as well as water utilised in public office buildings, security and policing facilities and other public institutions such as hospitals and schools all have a cost. 

However, research suggests that many people do not pay their water bills or they pay after significant delays. These arrears have a big impact on the financial and operational challenges that utilities face. When confronted with the collective threat of COVID-19, global citizens must set ideological, social, political and economic differences aside. Water is vital for the prevention of the COVID-19 and washing of hands and sanitising are among the several health guidelines issues. The Ministry of Water Supply recently raided several police stations that had failed to pay water bills and searches were conducted to reclaim the lost payments. Non-revenue water is a major source of concern for the government which adds that this is where water leaks or is taken unlawfully. 

The Minister in charge assured that drinking water will be declared a basic human right for all, stating that the administration hopes to achieve this goal during its current term. Secretary to the Ministry of Water Supply, Dr. Piyath Bandu, recently stated that after conducting a survey on unpaid bills, it was discovered in March 2020 that thousands of people are delinquent on their water bills, totalling Rs 8,000 million. Since then, the figure has continuously increased, surpassing Rs 9 billion, with residential customers accounting for the majority of it. 

He maintains that this is the sum that should have been paid during the two years that the COVID-19 outbreak decimated the country. The Ministry of Water Supply, on the other hand, has decided not to reduce domestic water supply since it regards water as a critical public service. However, due to an increase in the number of persons who do not pay their bills, the Ministry of Water Supply has decided to issue red notices to those who have not made any settlement in the last six months. 

Vast majority of domestic users 

However, Assistant General Manager of the National Water Supply and Drainage Board, Piyal Pathmanatha, stated that domestic consumers have to pay more than Rs 5 billion in late payments of water bills with the remaining reimbursed by government agencies. He added that this is the amount accrued from unpaid bills of domestic consumers from March 2020 until the present. According to him, around 92 per cent of consumers of clean water are domestic customers and approximately 75 per cent of users get a monthly bill of Rs 800 or less. He added that among the domestic customers who have not paid their water bills, some have not paid for a year, while others have paid for at least six months. According to statistics, around 39,000 and 73,000 domestic customers failed to pay their water bills for six months to one year. 

The Water Board is fully aware that the failure to pay water bills will be a significant hindrance in allocating financial resources in the coming year. “Non-payment of water and sanitation utility bills by public institutions is not exclusive to a single region or level of development. In general, the scope and complexity of the consequences of non-payment vary depending on location, venue and utility. It is a sensitive subject and some parties are under pressure to minimise it. However, there are reasons to think, as well as anecdotal evidence, that the problem is more serious than is usually acknowledged,” he said. 

Service discontinuation 

When asked if the Water Board implemented a programme to disconnect water supply to people who have not paid their water bills, he said that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing problems for the Water Board and the government and most significantly for the customers. Pathmanatha acknowledged that they were aware of the problem but added that they did not discontinue any connections and the disconnection programme has not yet resumed. And while the disconnection of water supply scares people, he does not want customers to wait until their water supply is terminated. 

Early payment earns rewards 

However, in order to encourage consumers to pay their water bills on time the Water Board is providing some major incentives. The first incentive was establishing mobile services to collect payments during the pandemic in order to make it easier for the general public and people who have difficulty paying bills online. 

Another incentive was a 1.5 per cent reduction if the bill was paid within 14 days of being issued. Pathmanatha claimed that before the pandemic, over half of all water bills were delinquent and were issued red notices. Like in many other countries, the Water Board did not issue red notices during the pandemic and did not disconnect the supply of water but urged consumers to pay their bills on time. 

Why do people fail to pay water bills? 

According to Dr. Bandu, as Sri Lanka gradually recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, the massive debt incurred by unpaid water bills serves as a sobering reminder of the economic issues that thousands of the country's citizens and the water board face. “Water affordability concerns which have long existed in a country where thousands of people are struggling to make ends meet erupted last year as the pandemic wreaked havoc on the economy. 

Jobs had vanished and household finances had been thrown into disarray. Bills were not paid despite government stimulus support and unemployment benefits,” Pathmanatha claimed. In the light of rising debt incurred by unpaid water bills, he claimed that defaulting late payers had not caused a loss of water supply as a result of a nationwide pause on utility shutoffs during the pandemic. 

The government permitted the ban to stop people from losing access to water, especially given the need to wash hands to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The issue, however, highlights how unpaid water bills harm customers and water providers in a variety of ways. “There is not a lot of wiggle room in the budget. When customers are unable to pay, the bottom line suffers, especially during a pandemic,” according to Dr. Bandu. 

Inventing new ways to assist 

The Water Board is now better positioned to help with water tariffs. Pathmanatha clarified their new system by adding that customers can now register with the website using their phone number and when the metre reader reads the water metre, the number of units consumed and the monthly charge will be texted to the customer’s phone. “If a person’s phone number changes, they can simply re-register with the new number. 

This is to urge people to recognise their limits and to keep them up to date because people use mobile phones more than paper,” he explained. Finally, he said that they intend to leverage some of the lessons learned from this programme to improve the application process, attract more customers and boost the existing discount programme so that struggling households can apply for it. 

Long-term assistance in reducing water expenses is required. Affordable water costs must be set based on residents' ability to pay their water bills. Although government assistance in paying water bills is appreciated, it does not address the root cause of high-water costs. A customer assistance programme and increased funding for technical assistance are widely supported. When these rules are integrated, they help ensure that utilities continue to offer safe water and that customers have affordable access to it during and after the pandemic.

By Thameenah Razeek | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 16 2021

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