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Unpaid Water: Why municipal water is disappearing in most African cities

Do you ever wonder why municipal water supply is fast disappearing in most African Cities and Semi-Urban centers? Have thought about why many City Water Works (or Government-owned Water Boards) are no longer in business?

If you live in the Western World - this may be hard for you to believe - that there is such a thing called "None Revenue Water (NRW)" - meaning people get water delivered close to their doorsteps, pipe-born for free. They just collect water or use public water for free. But they are happy to pay for electricity. Why is that not free too?

Little wonder then many of the public water establishments are broken and folding up or already out of business. In a place where 40% to 50% of the treated or pumped underground water that goes into high overhead reservoirs and is piped to users under gravity pressure ends up leaking away for lack of maintenance, and lack of repairs attributed to lack of funding - how do you sustain steady supply when the population has continued to grow at over 4% each year?

Cities like Lagos and Lusaka have bad groundwater supply with high nitrate/nitrate concentrations well above WHO recommendations (about 50 mg/l), plus other pollutants that includes sewage and fecal matter in water. These cause undue health hazards to the populations, in particular during the rainy season when the underground water table rises. The rise in the incidents of waterborne diseases as reported by many hospitals and clinics correlate well and confirms these observations.


It makes sense to meter and sell water today in Africa because of the ubiquity of mobile phones and growing Internet accessibility even in rural Africa.

While living in Nigeria during the mid-1980s to early 1990s - mobile phones were just beginning to surface. My application with the phone company for a landline took almost 6 years to get approved. Today in Nigeria people pay N20 per 25 liters of water on average - that's about 8 to 10 cents. By contrast that's about 50% of what they pay to get the lowest unit of mobile phone recharge card at N50 for about 16 to 18 cents - to make a call and talk for about 10 to 25 minutes.

Let's fast-forward to our new era and different scenario today - where people are capable of paying for the water they use, albeit, some small amount to cover the cost of safe clean water treatment and delivery to last mile users.

At RNM, we propose a new innovative solution that does the following:

  1. Identify good water sources with high yield volumes - especially deep wells in good aquifers

  2. Ensure that water quality testing is done on such wells (public or private) by private sector contractors working in collaboration with the Government / Local Authorities for permits, and quality control audit enforcement.

  3. RNM will collaborate with water meter manufacturers to install PAGO (Pay As GO) water meters that use rechargeable plastic smart cards with stored value and quantity of water that users desire to purchase on the smart card.

  4. RNM will also work with the private sector to install and maintain the necessary last-mile pipelines and public meters within each segment of the City / semi-Urban areas to cover areas with high population densities - typically areas with more than 5,000 persons per square Km.

  5. The revenue generated from water recharge card sales used on the meters is directly deposited into bank accounts (from which it is proposed that: 60% should go to Well Owners to support sustainability and maintenance, 25% to RNM to cover the meter management, 5% to Government for permitting revenue, and 10% to the Water Quality Testing partner for twice-a-year water quality audits). There will be no cash transactions done at the point of water delivery and card use for best accountability and to avoid corruption that has plagued Africa.


The above setup will allow RNM to adopt wells that it did not drill for example into a grand scheme public water supply system; treat the wells that need to be treated and pump the water down to water access points at dense locations where needed most under the control of our proposed public meters. Private homes that want independent meters will be equipped with one with water piped to their gate or doorsteps at the service entrance. Such owners will also purchase their own PAY-GO cards for the amount of water needed over a certain duration based on quantity use patterns for the household - daily rations, weekly, or monthly rations.

For large consumers such as Industry or big Commercial users like a restaurant, or hotels - RNM can install smart meters with prepaid support features that include GPRS / 3G / 4G mobile network technology. About 3500 of such smart meters can be managed by remote GPRS / 4G controllers working together with Cloud-based computers to provide water access, and user control as well as give users access to their usage reports in real-time. This will be the 2nd phase of our program design toward sustainable water use in Africa. So, as mobile phones are not free, and electricity is not free, for clean safe water to be sustainable and NOT depend on charity to carry it along, it has to be systematically moved over to a paid-water-per-use system proposed here.

Your feedback or comments are welcome.

To take support action - Contact Us here, or Donate to our Digital Water Metering project.

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