If you fail to pay your water bill, you can lose your property. That, in a nutshell, is the new position of the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) when it comes to dealing with customers who owe the State.
It may seem a harsh position to adopt, but WASA’s move to seize and sell the properties of its debtors is well-grounded in law and in public policy. The authority has a special status under section 74 of the Water and Sewerage Act; as well as section 3 of the Rates and Charges Recovery Act. Both laws are decades old, but the principles behind them are familiar and justifiable.
Plugging leaks in revenue collection is a good aim for any statutory authority. But in the case of WASA, the move by chairman Romney Thomas to exercise the authority’s legal powers is less a matter of policy and more a matter of necessity. The stark reality is the State has no choice but to tighten its hold on its dwindling revenue streams.
There have been decades of waste at WASA, both in terms of water leaking from pipes and in terms of revenue collection. By 2015, WASA had a $1.6 billion deficit; had almost exhausted its overdraft; and had millions outstanding in uncollected rates. In the current guava season, these kinds of figures are simply unsustainable.
All state entities should be seeking to bolster efficiency. While it provides an essential service, WASA is no exception. How else are we to safeguard the State’s ability to provide a safe and reliable supply of water to citizens? If WASA is riddled with wastage how can it fund its much-needed upgrade of infrastructure? How can it safeguard its facilities and handle contingencies?
Which is not to say the authority should be inhumane. Water is, after all, essential for life. It behoves the chairman and his officials to treat each debt on a case-by-case approach. The company’s intention to focus on commercial customers and to be cognisant of the needs of vulnerable residential communities is welcomed.
Arguably, WASA must be mindful of the potential ripple effect of its policy. Not only will there be an impact on the purchasing power of debtors – who stand to lose assets which could be put to productive use – but there could be knock-on effects on real-estate dynamics. If the alternative to property seizure is an across-the-board rate hike, then WASA may, ironically, be implementing the more compassionate option. A rate hike would hit consumers across the board and would have an inflationary effect that could simply deepen our economic problems.
What WASA must not forget, however, is that if it invokes legal rights against its customers, it must also be prepared to face those customers exercising their legal rights too. This is wider than individual debtors filing court action to resist the seizure of property which is unlikely if such debtors are genuinely unable to pay water bills. This is a matter of regular customers being aware of their contractual right to demand proper service from a statutory authority they pay. If WASA wants to plug leaks, fine. But it must ensure it uses its revenue windfall to fix its unreliable service.