The Sunday Mail
CHANCES of waking up to a gurgling and spurting sound of water issuing from vandalised water pipes are worryingly high in most high-density suburbs, as thieves have developed a new-found appetite for water meters.
The Sunday Mail Society is reliably informed that over 10 000 unfortunate Harare and Chitungwiza residents have lost their water meters to theft in the past six months.
This is, however, not a new phenomenon.
Previously, thieves targeted meters and taps, especially those made of brass, which they sold to metal dealers.
It forced some local authorities to switch to plastic meters.
But in the new spate of crime, they, too, have become a target.
“As of the first half of the year, more than 6 000 water meters have been reported stolen around Harare. We are doing our best to bring this to an end,” revealed Harare City Council (HCC) spokesperson Mr Michael Chideme.
“It is sad that we have respectable people within our communities that are accomplices to this meter menace. They purchase the stolen meters or even assign people to steal for them and hope they will not be caught.”
Sprouting illegal settlements in most towns and cities, coupled with a backlog for new water meters, has resulted in exponential demand for the devices.
The water billing machines are normally supposed to be supplied by local authorities, but they have been out of stock for some time.
Most families, some who have been on the council’s waiting list for two or more years, are finding it difficult to continue without being connected to water.
Not surprisingly, daring households have been taking shortcuts by engaging thieves to illegally “procure” the meters for them.
They are charged more than US$50 for the devices.
After securing the meters, they then engage private plumbers, who again charge not less than US$45 for an illegal connection service.
The private plumbers are often unscrupulous municipal employees.
Under the current by-laws, illegally acquiring a meter and connecting to the water system is an offence that attracts a jail term or a fine, or both.
Chitungwiza City Council public relations officer Mr Lovemore Meya attributed rising cases to sprouting illegal settlements.
The local authority recently discovered that nearly 41 000 properties in their jurisdiction were not in their database.
The dormitory town recorded more than 4 000 cases of stolen meters in the first half of this year alone.
“We still use the brass meters and thieves target these to extract the metal which is used for various purposes.
“However, some steal them for resale to new stand owners,” notes Mr Meya.
Houses that are being built on wetlands and other undesignated areas, he added, were creating problems.
“We regard them as illegal developments; as such, they shun coming to council for fear of being apprehended.
“Cases of those bypassing the water meters have been on the rise over the recent past. Indications are that more cases could be going unreported.”
It is the same challenge that is facing the capital city.
Mr Chideme added: “Illegal stand owners have no respect for paperwork and procedure, hence they deal with criminals.”
According to Community Water Alliance, a civic organisation that does advocacy on water governance issues, water meter theft cases are expectedly prevalent in high-density suburbs.
Ordinarily, when one acquires a water meter, it is taken to the council and registered against a certain property.
The device is not transferable to any other property.
However, it is believed that some corrupt officials within municipalities manipulate records so that the crime is not detectable.
“A stolen meter is considered lost though it will be in use. What it then means is the household using the stolen meter will be accessing treated water free of charge and that is a serious offence,” Mr Chideme said.
“The public has always been coming to council to apply and register water meters, but as illegal stands continue to emerge, so has the number of stolen meters. These people use whatever means they can to have water connection.
“Often when we demolish illegal structures, we find them connected and upon verifying, we discover that the meter is registered under a certain address in another location.”
He also noted that ratepayers have a role to play in the security of the devices.
At least 14 top officials were arrested on allegations of defrauding the city fathers of at least US$1 million through illegal allocation of more than 150 stands early this year.
Also, the Special Anti-Corruption Unit (SACU) spearheaded a nationwide probe that identified several illegal stands around the country.
And most of the stands are connected to council water systems, a development that is considered a tell-tale sign of rampant corruption in local authorities.
Recently, at least 260 households in Glen View and Budiriro lost their water meters in a single month.
“We lost it (meter) during one Easter holiday night. The entire family had gone for a conference and I was alone.
“I woke up to the sound of water gushing out, only to discover our water meter was gone,” recounts Kelvin Mawire, a Glen View 3 resident.
“When I made a report at the local police, I was told several cases had been reported during that period.”
Darlington, a haulage truck driver, bought a residential stand in Chitungwiza last year through a middleman.
He avoided the hassle of going through the proper council procedure by enlisting a local plumber’s services.
“My family stays in South Africa. I had no one here to see through my paperwork. I was then linked to a guy called Musa by a friend. He made me believe that the council procedure was long and cumbersome.
“Likewise, Musa told me he had council insiders who would speedily facilitate the meter for a small charge and I paid US$80 for the device and service, following which they delivered,” said Darlington.
He only discovered early this year through a council operation that the meter was reported stolen in Budiriro in 2018.
Sekai was also conned.
She got a stand through a housing co-operative late last year.
The co-operative then sold her a water meter ostensibly from the council.
“The man who supplied and installed the meter was said to be a council employee. They gave us the impression that everything was legitimate,” she said.
But it was not long before she got a rude awakening.
“I was devastated when the council came for demolitions telling us that the stands were illegal. It even got worse as I was made to pay a $2 000 fine for being found in possession of a stolen meter,” bemoaned Sekai.
But Chitungwiza Council has introduced a system through which all the meters that are installed within its jurisdiction are recorded and calibrated.
The meters are also painted after calibration to ensure that they are not brought back for standardisation if they are stolen from another household.
“We are hoping that the mark will give away culprits. However, efforts are underway to put all the meters on Geographical Information Systems (GIS) if funds permit,” said Mr Meya.
A GIS software is designed to store, retrieve, manage, display and analyse all types of geographic and spatial data.
Door-to-door inspections have also been introduced to fish out culprits.
Fines of not less than $8 000 and/or jail sentences will be passed to those caught on the wrong side of the law.