My submission is that we do not have a national water crisis in the sense of a lack of water. What we have is a national water management challenge.
The situation is somewhat reminiscent of what transpired at Namibia’s Independence when we experienced water problems around the country, especially in rural areas. At the time bulk water supply was well organised and virtually no town, city or metropolitan environment experienced any water problems. But there was a virtual crisis with regard to the supply of water to rural areas. Government was endlessly seized on this and in the end cabinet dispatched a team of permanent secretaries to travel around the country to assess the water situation. On this team was Petrus Damaseb, Permanent Secretary (PS) the Office of the Prime Minister, Ndali Kamati PS Home Affairs, Franz Kapofi, PS Defence and Bob Kandetu, PS Information and Broadcasting.The team’s findings were that rural areas, unlike urban areas, were holding onto the shorter end of the stick with regard to the provision of water and that the situation called for urgent attention. President Nuyoma moved with speed to separate the provision and management of bulk water supply from that of rural water supply. The latter did not exist as it was managed as an appendage of bulk water supply. Dr. Pedro Maritz, then Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry, was assigned to manage bulk water supply and Dr. Richard Fry was appointed additional Deputy Permanent Secretary in the same ministry, to manage rural water supply. The situation seemed promising at that point and the attention of the state was diverted to other development challenges.
Concurrent with these arrangements, there were rumblings in parts of the rural areas, Otjozondjupa’s Okakarara constituency in particular. Large sectors of the community went on virtual strikes and stopped paying their water bills, leading to the government suspending water supply to these areas in part. Political debates ensued and mutual accusations became the order of the day in parliament, with ruling party members of parliament accusing some opposition members of parliament of fanning the flames of discontent. Some interventions ensued and it would seem that some truce, if not settlement, was arrived at. And in time we arrived at the current situation of prohibitive water bills all around the country, which leaves many communities at best in disarray, with some opposition members of parliament shooting at government benches from the hip, to the consternation of cabinet.
I am of the view that the policies of the state with regard to the provision and management of water were either not well thought through or were driven by the urge for Namwater to provide comfortable wages for its employees. Whatever the merits, the truth is that the challenge of water management in Namibia is far from diminished and as matters stand, some citizens are toying with the possibility of approaching the courts to demand free provision of water to the nation as a matter of right.
Equally, the obtaining situation is that village councils, towns, cities and metropolitan clusters are indebted to Namwater by millions, because they got stuck in their tracks along the way and they do not know, given their budget lines, whether it is worth the trouble to try and pay these debts. My submission is that Namwater must approach the government and propose the declaration of an amnesty on water debts. This can work.
We successfully tried something similar at the Namibia Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) some years back. At the time I landed at the national public broadcaster as Director General with my back against the wall I had no illusions that necessity called upon me to crash-land, but hit the ground running. At the time government was reluctant to fund the NBC for various reasons. Three days after I started work Minister Netumbo Ndaitwa took me to a meeting of the Treasury Cabinet Committee and I was in for a ruthless lashing. In the end the Minister of Finance made the statement of the day: NBC had promised to submit a business plan and this was awaited forever and for government it was a matter of “no business plan, no funding.”
I left that meeting with two thoughts: either I quit the same day or I must be extremely enterprising. That is how we contemplated the amnesty of television licenses. I went to the NBC board of directors with a clear statement: we shall declare amnesty on the payments of outstanding debts for television licenses, which by then ran into millions. We implored members of the public to register anew and pay their television licenses from scratch and we would write-off old debts. Indeed, this proved to be the right thing to do. In the ensuing twelve weeks we collected over twenty six million Namibia dollars in new license fees and that is how we ran the NBC in the intermediate period. And in time we developed a business plan second to none in the history of the NBC, upon which the national public broadcaster was then funded by government. It is this strategic business plan that is still directing the operations of the NBC.
The point is that amnesty can work. As it is now, there is no way under the sun that Namwater will ever collect those debts and I am prepared to place my neck on whatever block Ovakuenjandje will invent. The absence of such collection will have the added side-effect that, for as long as the debtors cannot settle the debts, they shall not pay current accounts in a predictable fashion and Namwater will continue to operate on a deficit, as they cannot realistically plan their books on money they will never collect.
So, declare amnesty on all water debts irrespective of whether millionaires are involved and start a new book-keeping system. But then you must invent realistic structures to manage the exercise, otherwise you shall continue to beg the problem for an answer.