The Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority on Monday promised to reimburse customers for recent water bills calculated on old higher prices, hours after Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered an investigation into inflated bills.
“Today I just learned that the price of water in Phnom Penh had been increasing; that both low and high consumers have paid the same price, causing the policy to favor poor people not to be implemented,” Mr. Hun Sen said in a Facebook post, referring to a May prakas aimed at lowering water prices.
“This is the wrong way to implement my appeal to reduce the clean water price,” he added.
The premier also ordered Industry and Handicrafts Minister Cham Prasidh to investigate the issue and refund anyone who had been overcharged.
Shortly after, the ministry apologized to water users in Phnom Penh and Kandal province’s Takhmao City in an online statement, but blamed the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) for the “technical mistake.”
The ministry issued a prakas on May 15, reducing the cost of 3 cubic meters of water or less from 550 riel to 400 riel, or about 10 cents, it said. “The implementation of this decision had a technical mistake. The Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority calculated and issued the bills incorrectly that caused clean water prices for the people to increase in Phnom Penh and Takhmao City,” the statement said.
The PPWSA had been formally ordered to “urgently” reimburse consumers, it added.
Ministry spokesman Um Sotha said the PPWSA was already calculating the excessive payments and would inform users to claim what they are owed.
Mr. Sotha said there was “no need for the people to come to protest” because the problem was “purely a technical mistake” by the PPWSA, and was not on the ministry’s instruction.
He said he did not know how much money consumers had lost from the error.
Officials at the PPWSA could not be reached on Monday, but in an online statement it apologized “for the mistake.”
The PPWSA “will correct the calculation of the clean water prices…and will return those extra payments back to the customers urgently,” it said.
“We wish to promise that this mistake won’t happen for a second time,” it added.
Yung Sarak, 30, a water user from Meanchey district’s Chak Angre Loeu commune who works for a microfinance institution, said he was not aware of the problem until Mr. Hun Sen’s announcement.
He was not sure if he had been billed extra but said he would go back through his bills to check.
“Is it just carelessness or did lower officials not implement it?” he said, referring to the prakas.
Soeung Saran, director of housing rights group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, said the error should not have taken months to discover.
The Industry and Handicrafts Ministry “did not show professionalism and did not listen to the people’s concerns,” he said.
Mr. Saran said the ministry could have easily gauged public sentiment from Facebook.
“Why did the ministry not use this as a tool to collect information from the public user about their service?” he said.
“It’s good to take the action, but the ministry and authority should have seen the mistake earlier,” he added.
In January, after residents complained of inflated water bills, the PPWSA’s deputy director-general, Nin Chantrea, admitted that up to 80 percent of Tuol Kok district’s Boeng Kak I commune was affected by constant billing issues. She blamed staff misreading water meters or guessing water usage, as well as leaking water pipes.
(Additional reporting by Hannah Hawkins)