Imagine having to insert a coin in your faucet every time you wanted a glass of water or needed water to cook rice. It sounds absurd but it’s a reality that many poor people are forced to suffer. There are several types of prepaid water meters but the outcome is the same: If you cannot pay up front, you are unable to access water.
Water from prepaid water meters typically costs more than water billed from the utility. Prepaid water meters are typically used in the poorest areas and, as a result, those in most need are denied access to water. Following privatization of water in the U.K. in the 1990, and the higher rates that followed, several utilities installed prepaid water meters in low income areas. They were subsequently outlawed due to the negative social and economic impact. But prepaid water meters are still widely used in South Africa, as well as in countries such as Brazil, the United States, the Philippines, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Brazil, Nigeria, and Curacao.
In South Africa, prepaid water meters replaced previously free communal standpipes in rural townships. The meter worked by inserting a plastic card with a chip that could be bought for R60 (US $9.00). In order to get more water, money could be added to the card at a store. This resulted in a dramatic cholera outbreak killing several hundred people when people were forced to drink from infested water because they couldn’t afford the cost at the meter.
The World Bank has stated that prepaid water meters are not a problem when neighbors can share water, but when water becomes an expensive market commodity, social cohesion erodes in neighborhoods and communities. The result is that the basic human right to water becomes a privilege earned only by the depth of one’s pocket. Families are forced to decrease their consumption of water and to make difficult trade-offs between food, medicines, school fees, or water. As a result, women and children often go back to fetching water from polluted sources at long distances instead of benefiting from improved infrastructure.