Water Tap Often Shut to South Africa's Poor


By Ginger Thompson

New York Times
May 29, 2003

The afternoon's end brings a rural rush hour of women walking down the dirt road that winds through this village. Many of them barefoot and dressed in rags, the mothers and grandmothers come pushing wheelbarrows or carrying big buckets to fetch water for their families. But the road quickly becomes a divide between the haves and have-nots. Those with pennies to spend stand in line on one side and buy their water from a metered tap. The larger group scoops water from a giant, littered mud puddle across the way. Sewage seeps in from leaky pipes nearby. Some of the women said that cholera had stricken their families. Workers at a mobile clinic have reported high rates of diarrhea among children here. "I know it is not good to take water from this hole," said Nolulama Makhiwa, a 27-year-old mother of two. "But I am not working. I have no money. What else can I do?"

Not long after the country's first democratic government came to power in 1994, putting an end to white minority rule, the new government enshrined the right to "sufficient food and water" in its Constitution, and pledged to make water and sanitation available to every citizen by the end of 2010. At the same time, the government also began to shift more of the financial burden of those promises to a population in which at least one-third of people live on less than $2 a day. Officials urged municipal water utilities to adopt "cost recovery" policies that require them at least to break even, if not turn a profit.

Municipalities have begun working to turn debt-ridden and inefficient water utilities into profitable operations that could attract private investment. A handful have already granted long-term management concessions to private multinationals. Advocates argue that such policies have become conventional wisdom, helping governments around the world make ends meet while encouraging conservation. Not only here in South Africa, however, but also in other developing countries like Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina, privatization and water pricing have met strong resistance and public protests.

"Privatization is a new kind of apartheid," said Richard Makolo, leader of the Crisis Water Committee, which was formed to resist the privatization effort in a township called Orange Farm, 25 miles south of Johannesburg. "Apartheid separated whites from blacks. Privatization separates the rich from the poor."

South African officials say the change in policies has helped expand water services to 8 million of 13 million people who did not have water when apartheid ended. But the statistics have not added up to progress in many poor communities, which have won their first reliable water services but now struggle to pay for them.

The issue of access to services has become an explosive new cause in the same urban townships and rural squatter camps that were principal battlegrounds in the fight against apartheid. During the World Summit on Sustainable Development last August, thousands marched from the tin shacks of Alexandra past the elegant mansions of Sandton to protest, among other things, water and electricity cutoffs and evictions. Their cry: "Water for the thirsty. Light for the people. Homes for the homeless." Leaders in sprawling townships including Soweto, Alexandra and Orange Farm have encouraged people not to pay electricity and water bills. They have organized teams of bootleg plumbers and electricians to reconnect utilities when they are cut off. Political rallies and demonstrations have turned into street fights.

The highest costs to poor communities have come in the form of disease and mass disconnections. Three years ago, this province on the northeast coast was the center of the country's worst cholera epidemic in recent history, with 120,000 reported cases and nearly 260 deaths. The epidemic spread to seven of the country's nine provinces. Small outbreaks continue to occur, as those who cannot afford to pay for water in advance from communal meters or have been cut off from services for not paying rising water bills are forced to seek sources in polluted puddles, rivers and canals that carry disease.

Here in Shakashead, the women, speaking in their native Zulu, explained that only the luckiest among them have jobs at all, in the emerald sugar cane fields that surround their village. Those who work, they said, earn less than $45 a month, not always enough to cover the costs of food and water. "There is good water here, but you must pay for it," Ms. Makhiwa said. "If you can see the way we live, you can see that we cannot pay."

A survey by the government's Human Sciences Research Council for the independent Municipal Services Project found that up to 10 million people have been affected by water cutoffs since the end of white-minority rule. David McDonald, co-director of the Municipal Services Project, said the government's own reports have portrayed a "crisis of serious proportions." One report, he said, indicated that some 700,000 people were affected by water cutoffs in just the final months of 2001. Meanwhile, he said, surveys showed some 1.3 million people had their electricity cut off, including some 20,000 customers each month in Soweto.

In a telephone interview and e-mail exchanges, a high-level water official rebutted the water cutoff estimates, saying they were "based on a deliberate distortion of very limited survey information." Mr. McDonald countered: "As far as I'm concerned, you can cut our estimates of water cutoffs in half. The figures are still a serious indictment of post-apartheid cost recovery policies."

In the months following the cholera outbreaks, national water officials started a campaign urging municipalities to provide all households with at least a minimal "lifeline" of free water - some 1,500 gallons a month. Mike Muller, director general of the water department, said that an estimated 76 percent of municipalities had committed to the effort. "We have had to confront the fact that in a very unequal society like South Africa, a policy of cost recovery, which makes perfect sense in a more equitable society, would exclude the poor from access to that basic commodity, to which they have a right," he said in an interview with the South African press.

But David Hemson, of the Human Services Research Council, said free water still had not been provided to millions living in shantytowns and rural areas who were most at risk for water-borne diseases, like the residents of Shakashead, where no free water was available. Even in communities where a "lifeline" service is provided, water taps are set to dispense a limited amount of water and are then shut down. In others, drip devices have been installed, literally dispensing water one drop at a time. "The real battle for everyone to understand is how much does it cost to provide water to a nation and how do we pay for it," Mr. Muller said. "This is not privatizing, it is a massive reorganization of a government and how it provides services. We are still working it out."

The KwaDukuza municipality that covers Shakashead, with a population of about 60,000 people that is expected to expand rapidly in the next decade, became the first to sign a long-term management concession with a private company. The agreement, signed in 1999, gave French-based Saur a 25-year control over management of the water utility. Three years ago, Johannesburg Water signed a more limited management contract with the France-based conglomerate Suez.

Among the newest efforts by Johannesburg Water has been the installation of prepaid water meters in townships around the country's business capital. The first prepaid meters were installed last year in Orange Farm, and led to the formation of the Orange Farm Crisis Water Committee, the group headed by Mr. Makolo. Under the prepaid system, to begin next month and to be expanded to other Johannesburg townships in the next couple of years, families will only get as much water as they can pay for in advance. Their payments will be recorded on digital discs, about as big as a quarter. The disc fits inside the water meter, and activates the taps.

Jean-Pierre Mas, the operations executive at Johannesburg Water, said prepay meters would allow customers to use only the amount of water they could afford, and help the utility avoid clashes over cutoffs. "Under the old system, people were billed for far less water than they consumed, and still they were not paying their bills," Mr. Mas said. "They had no incentive to lower their consumption. They had no incentives to pay. If we don't do anything about it, it will be an unsustainable setup. We will have a financial disaster."

On the dirt streets of Orange Farm, where state-of-the-art water meters have been installed in front of lopsided tin shacks, people foresee a human disaster. Because of its location, it is known as the "deep south." However, it seems a fitting nickname in other ways. The township has become a microcosm of the nation's most pressing social problems, including high rates of unemployment, violent crime and H.I.V.-infections.

Officials at Johannesburg Water acknowledged that in communities like these, billing people for water has been like squeezing water from a stone. In addition to the limited resources, a culture of nonpayment lingers from the years when people refused to pay utility bills, usually a flat fee for water and electricity, in support of boycotts against the apartheid regime.

"The problem is not that we do not want to pay for water," said Hilda Mkwanza, a 45-year-old mother of six who lives in Orange Farm. "The problem is we cannot pay." Interviews with her and other Orange Farm women, who live by doing other people's laundry, said they barely had enough money to pay for food and school fees. Many of them already have prepaid electricity meters in their homes, and they say their families end up in the dark for several days each month.

Mr. Makolo, a veteran of the anti-apartheid movement, urges people not to pay. His motto, he said, is "destroy the meters and enjoy the water. The government promised us that water is a basic right," he said. "But now they are telling us our rights are for sale."

More Information on Water
More Information on the Dark Side of Natural Resources

FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C íŸ 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.