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International Coalition of Groups Delivers Letter Protesting Pre-Paid Water Meters

Dec. 3, 2002

International Coalition of Groups Delivers Letter Protesting Pre-Paid Water Meters

Industry Should Stop Production Due to Public Health Impact, Groups Urge

DURBAN – Three major companies that manufacture pre-paid water meters should immediately stop meter production because of the public health impact on families who cannot afford to pay for clean water, hundreds of organizations and individuals said in a letter delivered today to CONLOG, headquartered in Durban. The signers, who defend water as a human right, implored CONLOG to be socially responsible.

Widespread concern exists about the growing use of pre-paid water and electricity meters by private companies and governments. The meters are considered efficient and cost-effective for companies, which experience no lost revenue because users are cut off when they use all the water they have paid for. But the public health impact of pre-paid water meters can be devastating.

“Pre-paid meters are strategically designed to deny water and electricity to those who cannot afford to pay,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, which spearheaded the sign-on effort. Public Citizen is a U.S.-based nonprofit consumer advocacy organization. “Any policy that encourages the spread of disease and suffering is irresponsible and should be condemned.”

Pre-paid water meters are often installed in indigent communities and replace regular faucets that switch on and off. The devices require people to pay for water before they use it by purchasing a pre-paid card that is inserted into the meter with a tap below. As service is delivered, the balance is adjusted, and the remaining credit displayed. Service is automatically terminated if the payment balance is depleted until the consumer can pay again.

Pre-paid water meters were declared illegal in the United Kingdom (U.K.) under the U.K. Water Act of 1998 after water cut-offs were linked to increased cases of dysentery and other diseases related to lack of clean water.

Major companies such as CONLOG, Meinecke and Atlantic Meters market the meters, especially to governments and private companies in the developing world. The major companies boast new contracts in Namibia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Brazil, Swaziland and Curacao.

“Corporations seeking profit from a natural resource will never create a product or system that will benefit the disadvantaged,” said Trevor Ngwane, with the Anti-Privatization Forum in South Africa. “Being efficient on one end only leads to a backlog of expenses on the other end when people who can’t afford clean water get sick from drinking dirty water and then seek services at public health clinics.”

Research on the recent cholera outbreak in KwaZulu-Natal province, conducted by the Rural Services and Development Network in South Africa, concluded that its causes were linked to increased consumer fees, the installation of pre-paid meters and the special vulnerability of people living with HIV to cholera.

An international campaign to ban the production of pre-paid water meters was launched during the World Summit on Sustainable Development this summer. A delegation composed of Public Citizen, the Council of Canadians, Polaris Institute, Sierra Club, Anti-Privatization Forum, and the Integrated Social Development Centre (ISODEC) visited townships where many people had been cut off from water and electricity.

Sweetwater Alliance, a Michigan-based grassroots organization fighting Nestle/ Ice Mountain’s efforts to siphon groundwater from Lake Michigan’s tributaries for bottled water, delivered the letter in Durban. The group’s representatives are visiting South Africa in an effort to create ties between local, national and international campaigns to stop water privatization and bulk water sales.