The water bill that came from above

Paul Garside

In line with market based regulation and more recently market environmentalism, there is a continued focus on treating water as an economic good for improved development and utilisation of water resources. Observing water not just as a social good but also as an economic good is one of the main objectives in the 2005 Malawi National Water Policy. As part of this new policy, local Water Users Associations (WUAs) were charged with bills for irrigation water.

The water bill

In 2009 I carried out fieldwork in Southern Malawi researching how farmers on a local WUA managed and operated an irrigation scheme. During an interview with the president of the WUA, he showed me a water bill the association had recently received. It was signed by the chairman of the water resources board based in the capital city Lilongwe. The bill was dated back in 2005, which meant it had taken 4 years for the letter to reach the WUA after it had been signed. It included a certificate granting the association the right to abstract a maximum of 187,960 m3 of water from the local river, and in return demanded an annual payment equivalent to 1153 EUR. The amount was equal to over half the associations annual revenues generated from farmer membership fees.

Local perceptions

The president explained that they had not paid the bill because there was no basis for the charged amount. “They had no way of telling us what amount of water we had used. They went away saying they would return, but till now they have not come back”. At the time of my research, the government officers responsible for delivering the bill had still not returned to the scheme to follow up on any payment. In another interview, the local crop researcher explained that he was shown the bill by the president when it arrived. “I advised (the president) not to pay the amount until it was clear on what grounds the bill had been made”. He argued that certain groups were also taking out water upstream, like the local prison and fish centre. He wanted to know first whether these other groups were also paying for water.

Top down policy processes

In this instance, it took 4 years for water pricing plans to manifest at the user level in the form of a water bill. Local WUA representatives revealed limited knowledge and understanding about the bill, and lacked information regarding the basis for the proposed fee. A lack of engagement of the WUA by the implementing agencies resulted in the bill being met with scepticism, uncertainty and eventual rejection. This small case highlights some of the difficulties experienced when local users are finally exposed to top down pricing mechanisms as part of wider national reform programs.

A Water User Association (WUA) is a co-operative association of individual water users who wish to undertake water-related activities for their mutual benefit.

An irrigation scheme is an area of land that is supplied with water for the production of agricultural crops.

Government of Malawi. National Water Policy, 2005.
Interviews, 2009. Domasi irrigation scheme, Malaw