‘Water tariffs increase a necessity’
THE Water and Sewage Company (WASCO) has proposed to increase urban water and sewerage service tariffs by 13 percent to its regulator, the Lesotho Electricity and Water Authority (LEWA).
The proposed hike comes amid a severe drought in the country which has resulted in some Basotho being unable to access potable water due to the dry conditions.
In this wide-ranging interview, the outgoing WASCO Chief Executive Officer, Mathealira Lerotholi ( pictured), whose three-year term ends this month, speaks with Lesotho Times ( LT) reporter Lekhetho Ntsukunyane about the reasons for the proposed hike and other related issues. Below are excerpts of the interview.
LT: What is the mandate and functions of WASCO?
Lerotholi: Our mandate is simply to provide potable water and sanitation services to our customers who are in the urban centres and other designated areas. The urban centres I am referring to are the district town centres, but there are also other urban centres like Maputsoe, Peka, Mapoteng, Morija, Roma and Semonkong that are additional to the district administration centres. We do all these things bearing in mind environmental considerations and the health of Basotho.
LT: Are you able to cater for all these district centres in terms of provision of clean water and sanitation services?
Lerotholi: Operationally, we have achieved that in all the urban centres. However, on the issue of the coverage, we still have a long way to go. For example, in terms of dealing with waste water, nationally we are still in the range of 10 percent, which means 90 percent still doesn’t have sewage systems. Even on the water side, it’s still not 100 percent, but it’s very close; we are talking of ranges of over 80 percent. LT: What are the challenges? Why are you not able to cover er every area?
Lerotholi: We are unable to cover every area mainly because of population growth. Our urban centres arere growing faster than the rate of infrastructure cture development. We have also encroached onto rural settlements which were in the peripheryiphery of urban centres and whose infrastructure cture is not developed. We are now obliged too provide services there.
LT: WASCO recently tly proposed an increase to the water er tariffs. What is the reason behind this?
Lerotholi: The increase ease we have proposed to the regulator ator (LEWA) is basically meant to ensure the continuity of services that we are mandated to provide. ovide. The 13 percent increrement will enable us to do what we are supposed to do in a more refined manner. The increase will also enable us to curb the effects of inflation. We need to upgrade our operational processes and, more importantly, the regulator has raised some issues on which we need to improve our standards. And to do that, we need finances.
LT: We understand that stakeholders will be able to air their views on the proposal during public consultations. What would happen if the public disapproves of this proposed increase?
Lerotholi: Over the years, we have been consulting the communities we are serving in all the urban centres. We even established water committees in which we discuss what we can do within a specific year and also get to hear the people’s requirements. We hope our customers will appreciate why we have made the proposal because it is meant to improve the services we provide. So, I am hoping that they will approve the proposal. However, in the event that public consultations don’t go our way, we will still operate like before, and do the best we can with the few resources at our disposal.
Whichever way it goes, we will go back to the communities and discuss with them our successes and challenges in the previous year as well as our plans going forward. Hopefully, as we continue to do that, the communities will appreciate that they are our partners in service provision. Whatever increases may be effected in the following years will be based on our mutual agreement. Like I said, we have been holding such meetings in all the urban centres culminating with the stakeholders’ conference that is coming up in March this year.
LT: When will the public consultations be completed for the decision to be made?
Lerotholi: Let me separate the two things. The process that I have just talked about is WASCO interacting with its customers and all sorts of stakeholders. However, parallel to that is the regulator (LEWA) which independently runs its own process, which is public consultations. That has to be done within three months from the date of our submission. So expectedly by the end of March we should be in position to implement the increase if it is approved.
LT: What is the standard water tariff at present?
Lerotholi: To make it easier, I will try to put it per litre. But I will also try to explain how the customers will normally receive their bills. Our bill is normally pegged in units. One unit is equal to 1 000 litres. The current tariff per litre for households is 0.6 of one cent. It means that if you give me one cent for a litre I would have to give you change. The easiest way I can interpret it is to say for every 20 litre container of water, you pay 12 cents.
But for those who have running water, we have banded the tariff. For band A, which is 0 to five units and equalling 5 000 litres, the tariff for 20 litres is nine cents. But for customers with a tap in their yard, even though the unit cost is less than that of the public stand pipe which is 12 cents per 20 litres, they have to pay standing charge, which is basically for the infrastructure that has been supplied.
The standing charge for band A is M21.93 every month. For band B, which is 5 to 10 units, 20 litres is bought for 15 cents. For band C, which is 10 to 15 units, it is 27 cents per 20 litres. Band D, which is anything above 15 units, 20 litres of water costs 37 cents. We have now requested 42 cents for band D, 30 cents for band C, 17 cents for band B and band A is 10 cents, and we are still talking per 20 litres of water. The public should not be confused by this to mean that the tariffs are pegged in units. The standing price for band B to D is M38.50, and we have not requested any adjustment.
LT: How exactly do you classify your customers into these bands? Lerotholi: This is based on their consumption per month. We assume that if a customer consumes less than 5 000 litres of water in a month they don’t really use a lot. This would imply that the consumer is an ordinary citizen who doesn’t earn a lot. So our tariff is very much pro poor. It is actually subsidised. Even for band B, it is still subsidised though less so.
But for band C and D it is full cost recovery. This is for people who are using water extravagantly with swimming pools and watering their garden lawns which is a lot of water. The band changes automatically depending on how much the customer has used the
LT: Who subsidises your clients in bands A and B?
Lerotholi: It is cross subsidisation from one customer to the other. We don’t get any subsidy from the government. We are self-sustained.
LT: How is the current drought affecting your company’s operations?
Lerotholi: The drought has really affected WASCO and the communities we serve. Our operational costs have increased because of the drought. For example, when there is a lot of water, we spent less in extracting it, but now it is costing us more because it takes longer. We have also lost revenue as a result.
LT: What have been your accomplishments?
Lerotholi: We have a programme in one of the local radio stations where we discuss the challenges we face and map out solutions with the public. Whenever a challenge arises, we notify almost all the radio stations so that they alert the communities affected. For example, there was no water supply last weekend in the north east of Maseru because two major pipes were broken. So we had to continuously update residents in the affected areas.
Like I said, we have water committees in the urban centres through which we are able to discuss issues affecting the communities. The committees are made up of chiefs and counsellors under the auspices of district administrators.
I also need to mention that the crises we face are not dealt with by WASCO on its own. Water affairs departments, rural water supply, lowlands water supply scheme and the Metolong Authority are all involved. We operate jointly under the auspices of the Disaster Management Authority.
Internally, we have also improved our water management strategies. We recently acquired the latest technologies, such as using what we call smart meters. All our tankers were also on board.
We even hired some of the private tankers in order to alleviate the impact of drought in some towns where there was completely no water.
LT: What other challenges are you facing?
Lerotholi: The most serious one for me is poor or lack of town planning and layout in the urban centres. When we need to develop an area, it is costing us more if it is already settled because we have to reimburse the affected residents. The haphazard settlements have cost the company a lot of money in terms of installing and maintaining infrastructure.
I don’t know how we can deal with it as a nation. No settlements should be allowed in an area where a proper urban layout has not been made. The failure by some of our customers to pay their water bills has also impacted negatively on the company. My plea to our customers is for them to pay their bills on time.
LT: What’s your last word?
Lerotholi: My tenure at the helm of WASCO will come to an end at the end of this month. I am very thankful for the opportunity granted to me to work at this organisation and lead the WASCO team. Ultimately, it is a race, and you take a baton and run to pass it over to someone else.