Endangering lives in the name of frugality

Published: October 22, 2012
Email

The plan includes effective monitoring of leaks in the city’s water supply lines, imposition of fines on water wastage and raising awareness among residents on how to save water. PHOTO: REUTERS

While navigating a puddle created by a neighbour washing his car, my mind was drawn to the capital’s civic agency’s plans to save water. Coming just days after a confounding power conservation plan, the water plan, while a bit more realistic, still leaves out a key element which has already been discussed at national level — water metering.

The plan includes effective monitoring of leaks in the city’s water supply lines, imposition of fines on water wastage and raising awareness among residents on how to save water. While saving water is definitely an issue, seeing that half of the city’s water supply goes to waste and many of the water lines being as old as the city itself, these strategies will not be enough to address the issue.

In the National Drinking Water Policy 2009, variable tariffs were clearly discussed, meaning that efforts should also be made to make consumers pay directly for what they use.

Instead of fining water wastage, which would be difficult to do in the absence of water metering (unless the inspection staff just happen to stumble across someone pointlessly dumping buckets of water in the street), the correct step would have been to change the tariff structure for water to a tiered system for all consumers.

For non-industrial consumers, rates would understandably be variable, with lower rates being charged up to a certain volume of water, and then spike up once a level deemed to be wasteful or excessive is hit. This would help reduce water theft and waste, because one of the certainties of life is that people suddenly become frugal when they realise the commodity they are throwing away has to be paid for.

As things stand though, the nominal fixed-cost charge for water actually encourages waste, because one pays the same no matter what is consumed. Instilling a sense of civic responsibility in the people is good, but some people, like the guy in the car in front of me who threw a heavy glass bottle onto the highway without a care for the tyres he may damage or lives he may affect via an ensuing accident, still need it hammered into them.

On the other hand, the power conservation plan is just a way for the penniless CDA to cut its expenditure. Instead of focusing on cutting overheads, the agency has gone for cutting essential services like streetlights to reduce its power bills. The argument presented was that Islamabad is to be made a model city for loadshedding-stricken Pakistan. While the plan certainly accomplishes this by simulating a citywide blackout on the roads, it also gives muggers, pickpockets, and other street criminals a licence to loot, because if getting eyewitnesses for crimes was hard before, imagine how hard it will be if the crime takes place in pitch-dark.

Based on what has been reported, it seems the police did not have significant input in this plan. If they did, I would love to know what the senior staffers were thinking, considering that a patrolling police team I spoke to unanimously agreed that the lack of lighting just makes their jobs harder and a criminal’s easier.

The argument that streetlights cost a lot to operate is flawed. While the plan to replace all conventional streetlights in the city with energy efficient LED lights was shot down, it was not because the plan lacked practical viability, but due to the cost, which we later learnt was highly inflated.

The project could in fact be completed within a third of the original (inflated) Rs6.5 billion estimate, which incidentally, is the CDA’s own estimation of annual power bills for streetlights.

Even if that is not the answer, turning them off is not the solution.

Besides the argument that functioning streetlights reduce crime, they also reduce car accidents by allowing drivers to actually see what unlit, non-reflective objects are in front of them, such as beat-up taxicabs and clunkers with broken tail-lights, donkeys, cats, dogs and the Islamabadi specialty — wild boars.

Add to that the plethora of car accidents that will be caused by my fellow citizens’ love for using high beams with total disregard for incoming traffic and we can almost guarantee that whether or not this plan reduces power usage by a few rupees, it will reduce the city’s population by a few lives.

Unless that is part of the CDA’s upcoming population management strategy.

Read more by Vaqas here or follow him on Twitter @vasghar

Vaqas Asghar

Vaqas Asghar

The author is a senior sub-editor on the Islamabad Desk and also reports on diplomatic events. He tweets as @vasghar (twitter.com/vasghar)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.