While some Malawians have to dig deep into their pockets to settle water bills, Lilongwe and Blantyre water boards are losing over half a billion kwacha every month to illegal connections.
A case of insiders conniving with outsiders has also been mentioned by some sources within the boards, who argue that uncovering illegal connections has remained a challenge because people suspected of the malpractice are the ones who are supposed to crack it down.
A list of customers found guilty of ‘stealing water’ by both LWB and BWB, which Nation on Sunday has seen, reveals how difficult it is to detect illegal connections as most of them have been there for 10 to 15 years.
The list includes companies, some of which have been fined millions of kwacha, and households in affluent residential areas such as Areas 43, 47 and 49 in Lilongwe, Nyambadwe, Naperi and Chigumula in Blantyre.
Confirming our findings in an e-mail response, Lilongwe Water Board (LWB) acting spokesperson Trevor Phoya said the first crackdown campaign—between April and November in 2016—revealed to the board water theft of about half a billion kwacha.
“About K592 million is estimated to have been lost through 181 illegal connections discovered during the survey—averaging an annual loss of K118 million. Ninty-two percent of the uncovered illegal connections were for residential customers while the remaining 8 percent were found in commercial properties,” said Phoya.
He did not rule out the possibility of the board’s staff aiding the malpractice.
“Indeed, for those perpetuated by ‘insiders’, it has been the labourers [LWB] sometimes use for its manual works. The labourers take advantage of having some knowledge of the pipe network and use that to install illegal connections,” Phoya explained, adding that some of the casual labourers have been reported to police on criminal charges.
Nation on Sunday findings show that water theft is in forms such as meter bypass—where a customer has a valid meter but it is bypassed that not all consumption is billed; meter tempering—where the meter is manipulated to register low consumption; illegal new connection—where a customer has an installation not sanctioned by the board and illegal connections—where a disconnected customer reconnects without the approval of the board.
Blantyre Water Board spokesperson Priscilla Mateyu told Nation on Sunday that every month the board records 50 cases of illegal connections and consumptions, which lead to loss of revenue amounting to about K500 million monthly.
According to Mateyu, during the 2016 meter validation exercise, about 219 illegal connections were discovered and uprooted with perpetrators charged fines worth K47 million.
“So far, the exercise is ongoing as we continue to catch perpetrators and charge them for their illegal usage of water. For example, during the meter validation exercise, the board’s revenue increased from K800 million to K1.3 billion,” she added.
Central Region Water Board (CRWB), which also describes illegal connections as widespread, said the water utility companies will remain vulnerable due to lack of technologies to easily detect wrong-doers.
CRWB spokesperson Zephelino Mitumba said there is need to invest in computerised monitoring systems which can detect illegal connections as is the case in other countries.
Asked why the water boards are not adopting the computerised system, he conceded that such technologies are are difficult to acquire, given their financial position.
Mitumba added that they rely on tip-offs because illegal connections are hard to detect.
But Engineer Andrew Thawe, who previously worked for BWB told Nation on Sunday that illegal connections were more of a human resource issue—lack of discipline where employees disregard ethics for the sake of quick money.
He said the problem is difficult to detect because insiders are involved.
“There are people who have huge bills and deserve a disconnection—but some insiders would connive to have them connected. And there are places where meters are tampered with by insiders to have them lowly billed—if insiders were not involved, it would be easy to deal with the scheme,” said Thawe who also suggested that the boards need to sacrifice and invest in computerised monitoring systems, which eventually may save companies from unnecessary losses.
“But the computerised system in itself is not enough to stop the theft. There is need for regular physical checks; house to house meter verification. Inspecting structures in relations to their bills because people can equally take advantage of the computerised system,” he observed.
Recently, our sister newspaper The Nation reported that Escom loses about K1 billion annually due to illegal connections.
Escom CEO Allexon Chiwaya and spokesperson George Mituka refused to comment on the matter, but an Escom engineer, who refused to be named, said a syndicate of insiders and outsiders is responsible for the illegal connections.
“Ordinarily, you would think that illegal connections would be between houses—say tapping electricity from one house to another. But what we have observed is that people are ‘stealing’ electricity from main lines outside their route to their business places, which include industrial sites.
“Tapping electricity from the main line can likely be done with someone conversant with our system; either an engineer with Escom now or worked for Escom at some point; because it is both risky and involving. Such an undertaking requires competence and it involves a lot of money, especially when you are dealing with companies and affluent residential areas,” said the engineer.