‘Water operations don’t come cheap’

By Tsitsi Matope

MASERU — Lesotho is a “water country” and its citizens should benefit free supplies — this is the argument by some pressure-groups and individuals, who have a different interpretation of water as a “basic human right”.

These communities argue because water is life, it should be provided free of charge to ensure everyone, irrespective of status, can access it.
However, the reality is when it comes to the supply of potable water, consumers have to pay, based on how much they would have used over a certain period.
Recently, the regulatory body of water and electricity companies, the Lesotho Electricity and Water Authority (LEWA), approved varying percentage-increases for water-charges.
However, these increases were far below what the Water and Sewerage Company (WASCO) had requested to enable the implementation of its various projects for the current financial year.
The Lesotho Times (LT) met with the WASCO Chief Executive Officer, Mr Mathealira Lerotholi, to talk about the new water tariffs and how these would impact on the organisation’s programmes.

LT: Water is life, hence it should be available free of charge, so the argument by human rights activists goes. What is your comment with regards this motion for free potable water?

Lerotholi: Yes; in principle, water is available at negligible abstraction licensing fee by the Department of Water Affairs (DWA).
Lesotho is a mountainous country, with water running to its many valleys, while settlements are on hill-tops.
WASCO, therefore, adds value to the free water that is available in the water courses by treating it, pumping to elevate it to users, and piping it to individual user-sites.
It is that value-addition service that users pay for.

LT: How do you feel about the new potable and waste water tariffs considering what you wanted to achieve this year?

Lerotholi: This is going to be a very tough year for us because we had requested for a 35 percent increase on both water and sewerage charges and 6.2 percent for standing charges, which we did not get.
The proposed increases were based on the operations we had planned to undertake this financial year.
However, we only managed to get 16.5 percent of what we had requested — one could imagine how much we are, therefore, supposed to cut on our priority list.
What is happening now is that our Budget Committee is meeting to see which areas we can scrap-off for now until such a time when our finances will have improved.

LT: What was the basis of the reduction of the initially-proposed hike?

Lerotholi: Well, the reasoning centred on the need for us to improve the efficiency of our business-operations.
Some stakeholders who analysed our proposal indicated that we were inefficient in some areas, for example, non-revenue water (NRW) or leakages, which they said could be reduced.
We agree; this is a catch-22 situation, where we are losing water through leakages due to aged infrastructure.
We had requested money in order to fix our equipment, and in return reduce non-revenue water, which is currently at 28 percent. Our target reduction for 2014/15 is 26 percent.

LT: So what is going to happen to resolve the problem of inefficiency since you don’t have enough resources?

Lerotholi: It means the issue of water-leakages will still remain a problem in some areas. For us, this is a double-edged sword kind of a situation, where we are expected to achieve efficiency on a very tight budget.
Remember, this is the same budget that is expected to also cover all our operations, including salaries and the license fee to LEWA, based on the revenue we would have generated.

LT: In which areas are the leakages high and how does this affect your operations?

Lerotholi: We have high leakages in some urban areas because the pipes and pumps have surpassed their lifespan.
This year, we are planning to undertake some infrastructure-upgrading in Mohale’s Hoek, Quthing, Peka and a few other areas.
This is because, for us, having reliable infrastructure is important if you consider the high costs of water-treatment chemicals, electricity and infrastructure maintenance.
Therefore, any loss is a waste of limited resources. On the other hand, leakages also affect our demand and supply because not all the water we would have produced ends up reaching our consumers.
We cannot afford to lose raw water either, because we all depend on it and it’s not all the time that we have our rivers full.

LT: Which areas can you say, due to the tight budget, you are hardest hit?

Lerotholi: We are really struggling in the area of wastewater management because the treatment processes and infrastructure maintenance are very expensive. We are in desperate need of support.

LT: How much are you charging for the wastewater services?

Lerotholi: In areas reticulated, we are now charging M8.50 per 1 000 litres of wastewater. The charge went up by 50 cents.
This is not much considering we are no longer receiving any subsidy since we were granted company-status in 2010 and while we should meet our obligations, we are also now expected to operate profitably like any other commercial entity.

LT: Are you saying considering the tariff controls, it’s going to be difficult for you to find your feet and begin to operate as a profit-making organisation?

Lerotholi: To some extent, yes, because while we are viewed as a commercial entity, it is not up to us to determine how much we should charge for our services.
We are not in control. The costs of our operations are much higher than what we are charging for the services we provide.
Consumers also owe us approximately M80 million, which dates back from the time when the company was still a government department (Water and Sewerage Branch).

LT: What do you make of this? Is it a matter of some stakeholders not clearly understanding the water business?

Lerotholi: There are many issues involved, which include not understanding that water is a finite resource, which once lost, cannot be recovered, and that everyone has to participate in the water-conservation drive.
Another factor is the pressure from some consumers who seem not to understand why they should be paying for water in the first place.
We do have water in abundance in Lesotho and it is free when people get it directly from the rivers, dams and springs.
The issue of payment comes when the water company has to extract it from the river, treat and distribute it.
As much as we have the responsibility to ensure our people have safe and affordable water, those water operations don’t come cheap.
The other factor is failure to appreciate water’s economic value as seen by some poor water-use practices at both household and industrial level.
We also see this lack of appreciation through some behavioural patterns which sees many consumers delaying to pay their water-bills or end up not paying at all.
Ironically, these same people cannot imagine spending a day without running water in their homes.
This lack of understanding of the water business is also reflected in how cheap our water is — for every five-by-200 litres drums of water, for example, in the lowest band, it costs M4.18.
Realistically, we spend well over M10 to extract, treat and distribute 1 000 litres of water. Our water is not affordable but very cheap and that is why some stakeholders don’t see why they should not waste it.

LT: What can be done to make all stakeholders understand the importance and also appreciate the value of water?

Lerotholi: Continued awareness campaigns can help, particularly to achieve water-conservation at both domestic and industrial level.
It is for that reason that we are introducing a One-Stop-Shop-Facility to help strengthen our customer-care.
The customer-care is also a principle we would like to instill in all our staff through training, so that even when they are not at work, they remain responsible for educating consumers about various water aspects. At a higher level, it is of utmost importance to help decision-makers understand the importance of water as one of the drivers of development in any sector.
All stakeholders need to appreciate our priorities to enable a combined sustainable management of the resource.
It is also important for all decision-makers to fully understand the inter-connectedness of water and other sectors.
This can subsequently result in partnerships that can lead to investments in water-development related projects which can also help us improve on our efficiency.
I also think we need to work together, considering the effects of climate-change, which will continue to cause reduced water-production and trigger water-restrictions.
Importantly, if we can reach a point where we all understand that water is cross-cutting, then there would be no problem in having equally cross-cutting frameworks and integrated approaches that would foster collaborations and help stimulate more investment in a sustainable water company.

LT: You raised an important point, on the need for collaboration and integrated approaches. How are you collaborating with industry, particularly to ease your burden in the area of waste-water treatment?

Lerotholi: It is an area we need more collaboration, especially because we would prefer them to have their own wastewater pre-treatment plants.
That way, they would be able to do partial wastewater treatment and then pay ordinary charges.
At the moment, we are applying the polluter pay principle, meaning what we charge them is dependent on the level of pollution (chemical oxygen demand and suspended solids).
In most cases, they pay three times the average due to lack of pre-treatment plant facilities.

LT: Are they paying less than what you are spending to treat the waste water?

Lerotholi: No, they are paying proportionate to the level of pollution. However, our treatment plants cope easily with wastewater that is at domestic level of pollution.
Sewage from some industries needs specialised treatment facilities as it can disrupt the treatment process depending on the constituents.

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