This paper last weekend exposed a syndicate at Blantyre Water Board (BWB) that has been ripping off people for a service which is free of charge.
The syndicate involving fraudulent meter installers, it was reported, mostly targets postpaid customers with high water bills and at risk of being disconnected.
They charge between K30 000 and K90 000, as ‘a service fee’ for speedy replacement of the postpaid system. Victims of this scam have been residents of Machinjiri, Ndirande, Chirimba, Mbayani and Bangwe.
But word on the street is that the malpractice is widespread and has not spared people in Chilobwe, Chimwankhunda and Chitawira.
The news reveals deeper rot at the company. The first point of inquiry should be the source of the exorbitant bills that are driving customers to a point of desperation where they are willing to pay up to K60 000 for a service they know is free.
If BWB were to carry out a survey, they will understand how the post paid system is loathed. Many of the people on the streets cannot hesitate to switch if given that chance.
Before, a friend of mine had his meter replaced with a prepaid meter system at his residence he was often harassed by meter readers in his area.
He told me, they would show up at his house on a battered motorcycle with a monkey wrench in hand to disconnect water even when the bill is not 45 days old. If he is at the house they would demand to see him. “Bwana tikudulatu,” one of them would say—a subtle way of demanding a bribe.
The other day, another would show up to inspect the house because he claimed the bill, which in most cases would hit around K25 000 was, according to him, on the lower side. The meter reader would say that the size of the residence and the well-watered lawns meant he was illegally tapping BWB water.
His water bill became extremely inflated at one point that it reached over K80 000 a month! The meter reader would show up to demand bribes not to disconnect the compound, but he told them off.
There are so many cases of harassment that BWB customers are facing from meter readers and installers. If the media were to launch a project to expose them all, the water utility will be buried knee-deep in shame.
My point is, if the same customer is charged less for the same water after switching from post-paid to prepaid, then surely there must be something wrong with the post-paid billing system.
With the level of corruption that was exposed last week at the company, it is hard to rule out that someone could be tampering with the bills. Nonetheless, it is something that management should look into.
The fact that this syndicate can go as far as allocating a meter to a customer who, presumably was not on the list to get a prepaid meter, also shows that there is a lack of oversight at the company.
How else would one explain that management seems oblivious to the fact that prepaid meters are being installed haphazardly across the city when this was supposed to be done in phases?
As Consumers Association of Malawi (Cama) executive director John Kapito has rightly put it, this scam will affect poor households who cannot afford to bribe the rogue BWB technicians to get the prepaid meter system.
We on the streets, therefore, agree with Kapito that if the management at BWB were to address the problem, all they could have done is to bring in enough meters so that there is no scramble.
The company should also review its post-paid billing to ensure that customers are getting value for money. Third, the utility company should expedite the transition to prepaid meters and speed up the operation accordingly to ensure that all customers are billed equally and that there is no room for corruption.
BWB management has a chance to step in to resolve this mess and protect its customers. n