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Water prices up again, yet service bungled

Update: October, 23/2015 - 08:45

by Hoang Anh

The price of water increased by 20 per cent this month in Ha Noi, marking the fourth consecutive price hike in the last four years. The price has increased from an average of VND6,000 (US$0.25) per cubic metre in 2012 to VND9,500 ($0.42), a jump of almost 60 per cent.

Interestingly enough, another number seems to be on the rise as well, that is the number of times that the city's major water pipeline – the Song Da pipe, which supplies 30 per cent of the city's fresh water – broke down.

The pipe reportedly cracked for the first time in 2012. In 2013, it broke three times. The pipe earned its nickname as "the incredibly fragile water pipe" by the city's residents after it broke down five times in 2014 and six times during the first ten months of this year.

To date, the infamous Song Da water pipe, which cost nearly VND1.5 trillion ($72 million) to build, has broken down 15 times since its completion in 2009. Repair work has cost nearly VND10 billion. A little-known fact: the pipe won the golden prize for its construction quality by the Ministry of Construction in 2010. How's that for irony?

Last month, the public was infuriated to learn that a number of hospitals, including the Ha Noi Maternity Hospital had to suspend or limit their operations due to a shortage of water supply caused by another breakdown of the water pipe. Doctors and nurses were seen helping transport water in bottles and buckets so the hospital could remain functional.

Every time the pipe breaks down some 70,000 of the city's households have their water supply cut off, at times for days, while waiting for repair work to be completed.

Families who ran out of water had to do laundry and take showers in houses of relatives and line up to get their canisters of water from tanker trucks, a scene that reminded people of the old public water pumps some 30 years ago. Yet the water bill has been getting "progressively" more expensive each year.

Sadly, the same thing could not be said for the quality of service. People installed water tanks on top of and dug wells under their houses as a supplement to tap water in areas where water cuts were too frequent, making tap water unreliable.

In addition, tap water quality in the capital city has seen little improvement over the years. So little in fact that it gave birth to a mini-industry of water purification machines to ease residents' mind and ensure them that tap water is safe to drink, only after it has been filtered.

Frustrated residents voiced their concerns on numerous occasions on the quality of water service but their complaints have fallen mostly on deaf ears. Water company executives cited numerous reasons why they decided to jack up the price, which included the repair cost for the Song Da pipe, but offered no solutions or prospects to improve the quality of service.

Viwaco, one of the city's water suppliers, told the press that the price of water in Ha Noi was still very cheap. It was also revealed that even a 20 per cent increase would not cover the company's expenses and it would not be able to invest in any project to improve its services. In other words, it will be a while before the capital's residents see any major improvement with their water.

What the water company seemed to have missed was that people of the city were not baffled by how much the price has increased but perhaps by how the city's water service has remained unreliable and wearisome, price increase after price increase.

It doesn't seem reasonable for customers to keep paying for the bugling of water suppliers. The cause behind the breakdowns was made clear after a police investigation this year revealed that construction of the pipe suffered from much management misconduct and many violations as well as the use of substandard materials.

Before that, Water Corporation Vinaconex, the company responsible for the construction of the pipe, repeatedly assigned blame on a weak, unstable ground foundation and the construction of other infrastructure projects nearby.

From customers' point of view, an increase in price would be a lot easier to justify if it came with better quality of products or services. People tend to ask a lot of questions when they are getting less for what they are paying for, especially now that they are paying almost 60 per cent more.

Earlier this month, construction was started on the second Song Da water pipe by the same company that built the first one. The pipe, which was estimated to cost VND5 trillion ($222 million), was meant to provide Ha Noi with another water supply route because the first one "will definitely break down again," the city's authority said during a meeting in August.

Residents have reason to believe that Vinaconex would try its best to redeem its reputation and more importantly this time around stricter measures would be implemented to oversee and manage the pipe's construction. Otherwise, the city and its residents will have two broken pipes to pay for instead of just one. — VNS

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