By Emil Danielyan
Armenia’s parliament extended on Wednesday the October 9 deadline for forgiving consumer debts for supplies of drinking water as part of a major reform launched last year and already touted as a success by the government.
Households across the country will continue to have 70 percent of their water debts written off if they repay the remaining sum by April 1 and install water meters in their homes within the next three months. The measure was suggested by the government and overwhelmingly approved by lawmakers, including those representing the opposition.
The installation of mechanical gadgets counting every cubic meter of water used by a family is the key element of government efforts to reform the hugely loss-making and inefficient network. They were until now hampered by consumers’ widespread failure to pay their fees. Their aggregate debt to suppliers hit 35 billion drams ($62.5 million) last year.
According to Gagik Martirosian, head of the State Committee on Water Resources, the strategy has worked, with more than 70 percent of water bills collected by network operators last month. The rate of fee collection stood at less than 10 percent as recently as last January, he told RFE/RL.
Officials attribute the improvement to the fact that some 300,000 of 560,000 Armenian families with access to running water have already purchased and installed water meters. They say another 182,000 households plan to do so by the end of the year, having already signed relevant agreements with the water distribution network.
The average urban-based family in Armenia needs to purchase two water meters that cost at least 8,000 drams ($14) each and have them installed at its own expense. Those who receive poverty benefits from the state are entitled to a 50 percent discount. Many feared that the low-income population could not afford such expenditures and will stick to the old billing mechanism involving a fixed monthly fee of 420 drams for every person living in an apartment. Especially given the fact that most people did not bother to pay for the patchy service.
However, the reform beat the most optimistic expectations as many Armenians discovered that they save a lot by paying 56 drams (10 U.S. cents) per cubic meter.
“Things are going better than I expected. In Yerevan, for example, 99 percent of households should have water meters by next January,” Martirosian said, adding that the overall process will largely be completed in the course of next year.
He said the success of the effort keeps the authorities on track to make good on their repeated pledges to ensure 24-hour water supplies in virtually all parts of the country by the end of 2004. Martirosian and other government officials claim that further improvements require a steep rise in the water tariffs which are expected to take effect early next year. They say consumers will still pay less than they used to, even if the per-cubic meter charge is doubled.
Still, many deputies opposed the planned unpopular measure during parliament debates on the issue that took place on Monday.
Also vital for the success of the utility reform are low-interest loans that are provided by the World Bank with the aim of reconstructing and modernizing the country’s aging network of water pipes. Officials say as much as 60 percent of drinking was being lost until recently because of widespread pipe leaks. The government target is to cut the losses by half by 2005.
In 2000, the water and sewerage network of Yerevan was put under a four-year management of an Italian utility firm as part of a $20 million loan program funded by the World Bank. According to the A-Utility chairman, Andrea Mangano, $15 million of that was already been invested as of last July.
Martirosian announced earlier that the bank will allocate an additional $55 million for the same purpose next year.