Water – The Next Crisis

by Sep 2, 2010All Articles

By Jeff Rudin

South Africa has made remarkable achievements in providing safe drinking water to people, and in ensuring that there is sufficient water for energy generation and for the growth of the industrial, mining, agricultural and other economic sectors. But it would be foolish for the water sector to become complacent because of these achievements. The failures in the South African electricity sector, and failures in water provision around the world, raise the warning that things can, and do, go wrong. As with the provision of electricity, the lead time for the construction of large infrastructure is long, and planning must be farsighted and proactive. As with electricity generation, poor maintenance and deferred decisions can have enormous impacts on the economy and on people.

Thus begins the opening paragraph of the Strategic Framework on Water for Sustainable Growth & Development, a discussion document made public in early April 2008 by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF). This document forms the backdrop to the two-part article that follows.

Both the SACP and COSATU invariably point to water as one of the main achievements of the ANC government and of their own involvement in the Tripartite Alliance with the ANC. And the official figures do look impressive. As of March 2007, 94% of the population are said to be connected to the water infrastructure, up from 59% in 1994, while sanitation infrastructure coverage has increased from 48% in 1994 to 71%. Additionally, 17.5 million people are claimed to benefit from the new water infrastructure, with at least 86% of the population enjoying the water standards of the RDP and 98% of all municipalities providing free basic war.

A very different picture emerges, however, if only one is prepared to look even slightly more closely at these claims. The picture shines much less brightly when it includes the following:

• The statistics are simply wrong. South African statistics, in general, are notorious for their low quality. That we can’t even agree on the size of our population ought to alert us to be most cautious about the precision of the statistics that are so glibly used. Water statistics come via municipalities, yet municipalities, knowing the unreliability of their own statistics, created a specific project a few years ago to ascertain the true state of water provision, as opposed to the official position based on the very statistics they themselves provide. Less than half of our municipalities care sufficiently even to participate in this ‘Water Benchmarking Initiative’, although all six metropolitan municipalities and most of the large cities do. A recent benchmarking meeting of this concerned group of municipalities rejected much of the most recent data they provided about their own water provision. They did so because the statistics were ‘hugely unreliable’, according to the head of Durban’s Water Service, Neil McLeod. Saying this is not to deny that progress has been made in the provision of water and sanitation but rather to show that the achievements have been seriously exaggerated.

• The statistics are sometimes deliberately designed to deceive. DWAF itself now acknowledges that official statistics are misleading. It admits that the figures of 86% of the population with access to RDP water standards and 71% to improved sanitation apply to only formal settlements; the 15% of the population and 1.2 million households that constitute informal settlements have knowingly been excluded to put a gloss on the official version.

• The Constitution guarantees ‘sufficient’ water for everyone but it does not specify how much is sufficient. The government has arbitrarily decided that 25 litres per person per day (lpcd) or 6 kilolitres (kl) per household per month constitutes sufficient water. However, proper research, such as that done by the South African Municipal Workers’ Union, which
takes into account (a) other sections of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights – including health, food, and dignity – together with (b) the constitutional mandate for the state to take steps to progressively realise these rights that are now 12 years old, and (c) the fact that South Africa is a rich country, shows that the basic minimum amount of water should be 90 lpcd. Excluded from these calculations are the special water needs of the very young, the old and the sick, including the large numbers of people living with HIV. Finance minister Trevor Manuel urges micro-farming as a solution to the current food crisis. What he ignores is that his government’s basic water allocation makes no provision whatsoever for growing even backyard fruit and vegetables.

• Compounding the already seriously inadequate amount of water the government considers to be basic is that all municipalities disregard the per person allocation and instead work on 6 kl per household. The problem is that municipalities ignore the large-scale reality of multiple households on each erf (a small plot of land on which to build, usually in an urban area) in the major cities. The result of this wellknown circumstance is that the households affected frequently get much less than even the 25 lpcd.

• South Africa has won international awards for its innovative provision of free water – the same entirely unsatisfactory 6 kl per household.

• Making free basic water (FBW) even more suspect is that, when first introduced, the ANC committed the municipalities it controlled to provide FBW to all residents. This is now fast changing into free water only for those households formally registered as being ‘indigent’. Apart from the profoundly politicised and problematic nature of how indigence is defined and by whom, and apart from the indignity of being labelled with this term – a relic of feudal Europe – the actual process of registration is fraught. Johannesburg, the largest municipality in South Africa, is the latest to shift from the universal provision of FBW to a means test qualification. Moreover, Johannesburg is doing so knowing full well that it has registered only a small proportion of the people it knows fall within its definition of indigence.

• Water legislation makes affordability one of the key requirements placed on municipalities. With free water being so limited in both amount and eligibility, the price of water becomes a key issue in a county with large numbers of non-indigent poor.

• The unaffordability of water is reflected in the 10 million people who had their water disconnected for being in arrears with their water payments during the period 1994–2001.

• Publicity to these disconnection numbers, particularly when they appeared in the New York Times, provided a spurt to the promotion of prepayment meters amongst the poor. These meters, banned in Britain, save politicians and municipal officials the embarrassment of statistics on water disconnection. People disconnect themselves when the money runs out and this silent disconnection is not recorded in any official data.

• Prepayment meters have attracted a bad press, especially in Soweto where they were (effectively) being forcibly installed until the Johannesburg High Court declared prepayment meters unlawful on 30 April 2008. Cape Town is introducing its own version of the meter, but the word ‘meter’ is no longer used. The new terminology is ‘Water Management Device’ (WMD) – a South African weapon of mass destruction.

• Also excluded from the official figures about the water infrastructure, including meters, is the actual state of that infrastructure. The frequent system breakdowns and increasing inadequacy of some of the existing infrastructure has recently attracted national attention.

• Finally, as far as water is concerned, there is the question of the quality of the water that is being provided. Water pollution, like the failing infrastructure to which it is in part related, has recently also been the subject of fleeting, national publicity. For instance, Delmas made national news late last year when it was the site of a major water quality scare.

The sanitation story similarly glows far less brightly when subject to the slightest investigation. Apart from the standard exaggeration of official statistics, the main blots are:

• Many new flush toilets are no longer usable because of their low-quality installation.

• Basic sanitation consists of the cynically dubbed VIPs – Ventilated Improved Pit latrines. People, especially those living in cities, have rejected VIPs as being discriminatory and inconsistent with their dignity. This rejection is on a more immediate and far larger scale than popular rejection of basic water.

• VIPs are a still largely unrecognised national crisis for yet another reason. The pits are fast filling up even in those cases where they aren’t already full. Astonishingly, this eventuality was ignored when the VIPs were being installed in large numbers up and down the country. A stalemate exists between the municipalities and the private contractors who installed them, with the latter arguing that emptying the pits was not part of the contract and therefore not their responsibility. And in the meantime, the full pits overflow and the others are fast filling up.

Read more articles from Amandla! Issue #2, June/July 2008

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