Please sir, I need water to make my coffee…
Posted by Oscar the Grouch on November 1, 2008
I fear a whole load of many things in this world. Snakes, heights, stupidity, aging, getting sick, not being able to maintain a decent sex life etc, etc. And yes, not being able to enjoy my cuppa of coffee. To deprive me of that would be the wickedest act of epic proportion in my lifetime.
I have always dream of the ultimate nightmare: – waking up in the morning to find my coffee mug missing; or no more coffee-packs. This is why I find the Star’s report “Syabas to cut water supply of consumers who didn’t pay their bills” (The Star, 1 November 2008) a hellish manifestation of my innermost fears (it was reported that Syarikat Bekalan Selangor Sdn Bhd (Syabas) will conduct a large-scale operation in the Petaling and Hulu Selangor districts from Nov 3 to 30 to disconnect water supply to consumers with arrears in bills). Egad! Imagine waking up to a blissful Saturday morning only to find the water supply disconnected; and hence no way to make that hot cuppa.
Ok, I agree, perhaps I’ve an exaggerated tendency to over-dramatize my affinity with Nescafe. But then, on a more serious note, the issue of disconnecting water-supply has always been a troubling topic for me. However, first of all, I would like to make it clear that I subscribe to the general notion that no citizen should be liable-free from not settling their utility bills; and that there should be some form of rebuke imposed against incessant failure of payment. If you use water, you pay for it.
But should the castigating-punishment come in the form of disconnecting water supply? This should be the jurisprudential / human rights issue to be carefully considered by the State. The World Health Organization recognizes that access to the supply of safe water is a basic human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 guarantees all people a right to adequate standard of living, health and well-being.
In 2000, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights formally endorsed that access to safe drinking-water as a right to health. In 2002, the Committee further recognized that water itself was an independent right. Drawing on a range of international treaties and declarations, it stated: “the right to water clearly falls within the category of guarantees essential for securing an adequate standard of living, particularly since it is one of the most fundamental conditions for survival.”
In a simplistic line of reasoning, water does not belong to any State, body, corporation or individual. Water is a natural resource from the planet, hence nobody can, technically, lay claim of rights and ownership over it. Perhaps what we are paying for to the State is for treated water: the cost for making water safe to drink and the supply of it.
This issue is not novel; it has been grappled by authorities worldwide. In South Africa, legislation ensures that everyone has a right to a basic water supply and there are strict guidelines concerning disconnection. In May 2008, a group of residents at Soweto successfully contested a local authority’s decision to disconnect water supply and asked the court to order the city to provide at least 50 litres of free water per person per day. The court also ruled that the residents were allowed a choice of an ordinary credit water meter instead of the prepaid system imposed by the city, which requires people to pay in advance and which discriminates the poor. In reaching its judgement, Judge Moroa Tsoka of the Johannesburg High Court declared that “Water is life, sanitation is dignity – this case is about the fundamental right to have access to sufficient water and the right to human dignity.”
The argument against disconnection here is not against errant defaulters. We should consider the plight of the innocent. There must be some form of system in place to ensure that the innocent, especially children, are not deprived of a basic necessity of life. Now, consider this for a moment: – if an irresponsible father has failed to pay the water charges, are we to stop water supply to the children? What about child-care centres? What if the operator fails to pay; will the children be deprived of water for days? What about schools, clinics or hospitals?
In 1989, the Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees that children are entitled to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health, which requires the State to take appropriate measures to combat disease and malnutrition; including within the framework of primary health care (which includes the provision of clean drinking-water).
Perhaps disconnection is not a correct approach in such cases. Lim Kit Siang, in his blog, has pointed out that the Coalition Against Water Privatisation (CAWP) and MTUC were appalled at the high levels of water supply disconnection in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor and Putrajaya since water privatization in the last two years. They had consistently argued that organizing water for profits would lead to high levels of disconnections, a notion that violates peoples’ rights and access to clean water – poor and vulnerable communities might be at risk.
Lim Kit Siang had made a call for the Ministry to instruct Syabas to develop a humane way of collecting water bills, one where peoples’ right to clean water is not violated. It was further reported that in April 2007, that there were a total of 364,200 disconnections in the concession area, namely Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya. The revenue from reconnection at RM50 per reconnection fee is about RM 18.2 million in the last two years. From January 2007 to September 2007, there were about 136,000 disconnections. The revenue from disconnections fees for nine months in 2007 is about RM 6.83 million.
Unless there is a worthy system with strict and just guidelines in place for water disconnection, perhaps Syabas should consider other forms of recovery, apart from wanton ransom. We have to also bear in mind that Syabas is not even the government, but a body corporate; a product of privatization. To equip them with such powers in matters dealing with fundamental rights seems a bit dangerous. As an alternative, at this immediate juncture, perhaps Syabas should revert to the more traditional system of hauling-up errant defaulters – by way of court action. This would be a safer option. Sure, it will take time and expense; and chances of recovery will diminish, but at least we can be assured that innocent individuals are not deprived of their basic right to water.
Until then, I will make sure my flask of hot water remains full, just in case the water supply is disconnected. Hmm … the coffee does smell extra good today.