Can text messaging solve Karachi’s incredible unpaid water bill problem?

Jawed Shamim, a chief engineer for the Karachi Water & Sewerage Board, sends text messages to remind customers to pay their bills. Only 300,000 customers in this city of 20 million pay their water bills. (Mahim Maher/ Citiscope)

KARACHI, Pakistan — This is a city of more than 20 million people, and most of them don’t pay their water bills. To get its predominantly Muslim customers to pay up, the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board has begun playing the religion card.

“Have you ever wondered if you’ve paid for the water you are using to perform wuzu?” it asked customers recently in a text message sent to their mobile phones. Wuzu is the washing Muslims need to do before praying five times a day. That’s a lot of water. Only one-tenth of Karachi pays its water bills. That could be a lot of guilt.

The text message was one of 200,000 the water board has sent in an experiment that began in January. Not all of the messages have moral undertones. Some merely tell customers to keep an eye out for their next bill and remind them to pay before the due date. Others contain tips on how to save water. Often, the texts alert customers about water supply disruptions and breakdowns —  something that happens regularly in Karachi, with its aging and inadequate water infrastructure.

For the KWSB, a struggling agency that only computerized its billing in 2007, these messages represent a small but significant step toward a new openness with customers. An overwhelming majority of people in Karachi carry mobile phones. Texting, also known as SMS messaging, is ubiquitous among rich and poor alike.

Ahmad Rafay Alam, a well known lawyer and urbanist in Pakistan and former chairman of the electric company in Lahore, says texting can be a very powerful communication tool for utilities here. “SMS messaging can provide a level of transparency never before known in these parts,” he says. If the plan succeeds at increasing water revenues in Karachi, it could help KWSB make water service more reliable — and possibly inspire even more customers to pay their bills.

A small start

That outcome remains a long way off, however. The pilot program is starting out very small. And Karachi’s water problems are enormous.

There are massive water shortages here, especially in the hot summer months — when you turn on the tap, frequently nothing comes out. Tanker trucks controlled by mafia gangs illegally pump water out of hydrants and sell it to desperate customers at inflated rates. KWSB doesn’t use water meters because there’s no money to pay for them and the power supply isn’t consistent enough to run them anyway.

The water board can’t keep up with breakneck growth in Karachi’s informal slums. Karachi has at least 3 million households, but KWSB has only around 1 million registered customers. “It is not the water board’s fault alone,” says Noman Ahmed, who wrote the most authoritative book on Karachi’s water woes.  ”The drastic changes and the land use changes are happening to impact it.” The weak city government has not been able to stop slums from springing up atop water infrastructure. This has made it difficult to dig deep to fix major pipe leaks.

Increasingly, security is also a major problem. Ethnic violence and gang activity are rising in many neighborhoods of Karachi. Entire sections of the city are off limits to KWSB employees, who would have to risk their lives to go there.

Among Karachi’s many water woes is an aging infrastructure. (Mohammad Noman/ Express) 

The worsening security situation is actually one reason KWSB has turned to texting — it’s much safer to send customers a message to their phones than to go knocking on doors in hostile neighborhoods. The hope is that the SMS service will help replace a door-to-door consumer survey that has become difficult to administer in the current security environment.

Centralized system

The idea came from the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Programme, which for several years has been working with KWSB on assessing its troubles and training employees. Through that partnership, for example, key KWSB staff traveled to Uganda to learn how to peg a utility staff’s salaries to performance at work. Later, they hit on the idea of trying to reach out to more people in Karachi via SMS. The city of Lahore’s utility is also trying out SMS to contact customers.  

In Karachi, much of the job falls to Jawed Shamim, a chief engineer who runs KWSB’s internal reform program. Shamim works out of one of the utility’s ramshackle one-story buildings, where there is no power before 11 am due to KWSB’s own unpaid bills with the local electric company. He is so close to retirement he can almost taste it: 19 months to go, he’s quick to say. But Shamim is also intent on using his remaining time to do something to make Karachi’s water service a little less bad. He thinks the text alerts might help.

“Our service delivery and attitude to consumers is bad,” Shamim says. “To talk about innovative things and service delivery seems like madness to people here.”

For the experiment, KWSB is working with SMSall, a Pakistan company that runs a texting-based social networking platform. Shamim’s team fed 33,000 cell phone numbers into a database. About 6,000 of the numbers came from a recent door-to-door survey KWSB had conducted. The bulk of the rest came from a private telecommunication company that shares numbers from its own system for allowing people to pay utility bills via mobile phones.

Shamim has access to an online dashboard that looks much like a blogging interface. All he has to do is type in his message, and it goes out to all the cell phone numbers. He does this about once a week. Customers can respond — which they do often with complaints.

KWSB hopes to eventually align the text system with a phone hotline customers can call by dialing 1339 (a staff of seven fields more than 100 calls a day). The text messages would show up on phones as coming from “1339” — as opposed to “8001” as they do now. Two more applications are planned. One would let KWSB use polls to conduct surveys about service delivery and billing performance. The other would allow educational campaigns — to encourage conservation, for example. 

A new dialogue

Customers have sent about 500 text message replies back to KWSB. The responses show the range of emotions people in Karachi feel about their decrepit water system — and the many ways it affects their lives.

One customer texted to say the tap water had not turned on in 10 years. Another complained of a sewage backup. A third complained of no water in a block of flats where a family needed to perform the last rites for someone who had died (Muslims wash the body before a burial that has to take place immediately after death).

A few customers have responded with appreciation. One reply said, “JazakAllah.” The word is an Islamic way of thanking someone who does you a good deed.

Residents filling water cannisters during one of Karachi’s frequent water shortages. (Rashid Ajmeri/ Express)

Shamim’s team pores over every response, collates them, prints them out and distributes them to the appropriate office. The team is working down the list of complaints. Some are as simple as replacing a manhole cover. Others will require weeks of digging to fix a sewage leak deep underground. Shamim responds to many from his laptop, stabbing at the keys one at a time. Finishing one response, he reads it out loud before pressing send. “We are saying, ‘Sorry for the inconvenience’,” he stresses. Shame is a common feeling in this office.   

Shamim believes the experiment in transparency is yielding revenue results. Bill payments hit a record high in February, although Shamim notes that the SMS experiment is only one of many factors that could influence that. A senior specialist from the World Bank who is familiar with the program says it’s too early to assess results from the initiative. The Bank plans to do a scientific assessment when more data are available.

The World Bank specialist, who was not cleared to talk to the media and asked not to be named, says there’s reason to be hopeful about the experiment. “Internalizing this in a public institution in Pakistan like KWSB is innovative,” the specialist says. But it’s also not guaranteed to work in an agency that faces so many challenges. “SMS is a simple technology. We all use it on a daily basis. But let me tell you that when it comes to institutionalization of this simple technology then we have to develop systems, processes and procedures which never existed before.”

Overcoming customers’ hostility will be an even bigger challenge. Many people don’t pay their water bills because they figure KWSB’s service is so terrible they shouldn’t have to pay for it.

And if KWSB is playing the religion card, the utility’s customers can play it right back. Wajid Iqbal Siddiqui directs a unit of KWSB that has used a “citizen’s report card” to grade the agency’s performance. He’s heard a lot of reasons why customers in slums don’t pay their bills. But the most common one, he says, is this: “Tomorrow, you’ll want to charge us for sunshine and the air we breathe. Water is Allah’s blessing. Why should we pay for it?”

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Mahim Maher is the city editor at The Express Tribune, a daily national newspaper in Pakistan. Full bio

LEARNING FROM KARACHI

  • Text messaging is ubiquitous in Karachi and reaches rich and poor water customers alike.
  • In dangerous neighborhoods, SMS gives water officials a safe way to communicate with customers.
  • Bill payments are up, but it’s impossible to say yet whether the texts had anything to do with that.

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