Alternative Strategies: South Africa’s Water Policies

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While many in this hemisphere will think of Cochabamba, Bolivia when considering the subject of water commercialization and its struggle with Bechtel, the water scenario is being played out in a variety of venues around the world. For example, the water issue is in the crosshairs of South African policy-makers. South African water policy has made enormous strides since the establishment of the new African National Congress (ANC) government in 1994. After taking office, it set forth new policies that made sustainable access to clean and healthy water a human rights issue imbedded within the Constitution. Nevertheless, there is a distinct gap between household water policy and the country’s water service provisions in three major areas: access, sanitation and waste management, and sustainability.

First, access to water remains one of South Africa’s primary problems with its household water policy. While the number of households with access to clean water has increased significantly from 77% in 1993 to 88% in 2003 (Lecture, 3/3/08), the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) data for 2007 shows there exists a backlog of .65 million households without basic water services, in which there no access to any form of formal water infrastructure. Second, although the government’s focus on sanitation and waste management has been increasing, DWAF continues to report a backlog of 3.5 million households with access to sanitation below the levels established in the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP). Finally, South African water policy has been inadequate to confronting the task of sustainability. Sustainability refers to the obligation of the state to perform 2 functions: first, to protect the natural environment from pollutants and other wastes that would damage the water supply and second, to assure development to communities in order to meet the needs of present and future consumers.

Although the 1997 Water Services Act emphasizes the protection of South Africa’s scarce water resources from harmful substances and pollution, the implementation of this policy is lacking in terms of a strict enforcement mechanism to uphold pollution standards, as well as the ratification of the structure of charges for waste discharge and water pollution. In considering these three major problems with water services, the problems of access, sanitation, and sustainability will be broached in greater depth in comparison with South Africa’s existing water policy, including the 1997 Water Services Act and the National Water Resource Strategy (NWRS). The purpose here is to further explore the causes for the gap between policy and implementation. After that, a course of action to improve South Africa’s water policy will be entertained, which favors greater efficiency in implementing the existing framework of water service policies set out in the National Water Resource Strategy of 2004, a redefined and more limited approach to the concept of Free Basic Water, and finally the creation of an overarching framework for sanitation based on a strategic model for water delivery.

Key Issues in Household Water Policy

Household access to water has shown dramatic improvements since the new ANC government came to power in 1994, with statistical research in 1994 showing 12 million people without household access to water; current DWAF updates for the 2007 report indicates that there are now less than 3 million people without access to water. This in turn suggests that there has been a significant increase in the ability of South Africans to gain access to household water. Two important pieces of legislation contributed to this increase, namely the 1994 White Paper on a National Water Policy and the 1998 National Water Act. The 1994 White Paper stressed the importance of implementing a policy that ensured equitable access to water. It not only abolished the riparian system of water allocation, but also established the reserve, a protected percentage of South Africa’s water that would be used to guarantee meeting basic human needs and maintain environmental sustainability for future generations. Yet, where the White Paper established broad guidelines for future policy, the 1998 National Water Act focused exclusively on the question of equity of access to water. This Act mandated the creation of the National Water Resource Strategy (NWRS) to set out a national framework for managing water resources. Additionally, the 1997 National Water Policy contributed to this by classifying water as a national resource for which the government was a public trustee. In 2000, the government committed itself to further addressing access issues by establishing a system of Free Basic Water to benefit low-income households, as well as allocating responsibility for household access to municipalities and local governments to better monitor the needs of consumers.

How Much Water per Person?

However, while there has been a significant increase in the number of people who have gained access to water, the quality of water service has been compromised by the government’s commitment to ensuring that every person gains equitable access to it. First, the ANC’s Free Basic Water program provides only 25 Liters per person per day to respective recipients. Although this policy was set forth to help rural areas gain access to free water, there are two major problems with Free Basic Water. In considering the RDP’s recommendation of 25 L per person per day, this amount is demonstrably inadequate when compared with the World Health Organization’s recommendation of between 20 and 40 liters per person per day, excluding cooking, bathing, and basic cleaning. Therefore, it becomes clear that 25 L per person per day is grossly below the basic water recommendation, indicating that the policy serves up the bare minimum with respect to water allocation. The second issue with Free Basic Water is that this method of loosely funding the system comes from the water users. It is they who are required to pay the extra amount per day for the water that is used. However, this creates a problem for low income and rural residents due to their inability to pay the add-on cost on of extra water usage, leading them to have to find alternative sources of water, including contaminated rivers and ponds, which often lead to outbreaks of disease.

Access to water also concerns the quality of infrastructure available within households and rural areas. The 1994 White Paper on a National Water Policy for South Africa set forth a “some for all” policy in which it was the responsibility of local government to ensure that each person received the proper infrastructure necessary to receive their water. However, the measures taken by municipalities to ensure that there is equity in access are often poor substitutes for the proper infrastructure, such as taps within households and suitable pipelines.

Availability of Hook-ups

An example of this lack of proper infrastructure lies within the way water is provided to rural areas. Municipalities often install community taps that can be up to, or even more than, 200 meters from homes within these lower-income areas. As a result of this, women and children often have to walk long distances to collect water for basic functions such as cooking and cleaning. Statistical data from a 2000 Infrastructure Report noted that only 55% of residents within the Kwazulu-Natal Province had taps inside the dwelling, and only 38% in the Northern Province. Additionally, the report noted that for those traveling more than 200 meters to access their main source of water, it took 29% in Kwazulu Natal Province and 30% in Northern Province more than 60 minutes to walk to a community water facility. The time spent accessing water mainly significantly impacts women and children due to the fact that it could be used far more efficiently, such as on education and labor, in order to eventually provide for the family. Therefore, the communal taps established by municipalities within the low-income and rural areas are not nearly as efficient as it would be to expend more funds on a per capita basis in order to put proper infrastructure within homes. This not only can be a problem for the residents of these communities, but also for the municipality itself due to the fact that in the long term these present measures can waste money and resources.

Sanitation Levels

Although sanitation is an issue that has been receiving more attention in the last few years due to increased media attention and disturbing governmental studies, access to its services remains one of the foremost problems requiring attention with respect to South African water policy. Current records from the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry show that 14.33 million people have access to sanitation that is below RDP standards, and 3.5 million households below RDP standards. These numbers are significantly lower than the household statistics for basic water provision, indicating that although sanitation is gradually working its way to the policy agenda, it has not received the same amount of attention in the past as has access to water services. As further evidence of this, Hemson’s states in his article, “Policy and Practice in Water and Sanitation,” that, “spending on sanitation is about a tenth of what is spent on water delivery,” pinning the imbalance on the notion that water service delivery is more politically viable. This account concludes that household access to sanitation is woefully behind service delivery in terms of government spending and attention.

South African sanitation policy, as set forth in the 1995 National Sanitation White Paper, establishes eight policy principles that resembles the White Paper for Water Policy, including the concept of sanitation services as a basic human right, a “some for all” standard rather than “all for some,” equity when it comes to access, and a user payer system informed by sustainability. Although the White Paper establishes a general outline for sanitation policy, sanitation delivery suffers from a similar shortening as has been the case of water service delivery. The infrastructure and methods used to solve the sanitation problem have tended to be of low standard and potentially harmful to the environment. For example, sanitation policy delegates the responsibility of setting up sanitation services and creating infrastructure to the municipalities and local governments.

Hardware Problems

Due to the lack of sufficient budgets and personnel, municipalities have resorted to low-standard substitutes for the proper removal of water-born wastes, such as VIPs, or Ventilated Improved Pit toilets, and chemical-based toilets rather than flush toilets. These types of toilets present two major problems. First, VIP and chemical based toilets in fact, do not involve waterborne solutions to the problem of human waste, though the 1994 White Paper established the importance of water in transporting human wastes from the home. VIP toilets are pit latrines which first allow the urine to dry, leaving the faeces to dry naturally and decompose.

Because VIP latrines do not carry waste away from the site, there remains the risk of disease spreading throughout the community. Second, VIPs and chemical toilets represent a problem for the environment in that there is potential for the chemicals to leak through the soil into the groundwater, thus polluting South Africa’s water sources. Therefore, although the 1994 White Paper emphasized a need for water-based solution to sanitation and the need for a clean removal of waste, municipal response is minimal in its security against health risk and low pollution standards. Therefore, there is a gap between policy and implementation, showing a need for stronger legislation and enforcement mechanisms not only in pollution, but in sanitation standards.

Finally, there exists a gap between the policies favored in the National Water Resource Strategy (NWRS) and the implementation of a sustainable solution to water. As explained in the introduction, sustainability consists of two major components: the need to protect the water resource from harm (namely pollution) and conservation of this scarce resource, and finally, to establish sufficient and proper infrastructure to maintain water supply for future generations.

The NWRS is clear in the conservation and protection of water resources, noting that, as a scarce resource, maintaining the supply of water is crucial to future household provision. Haasbroek’s study on Water Demand Management noted that there has been a progressive decline in the volume of water made available each year due to erratic and insufficient rainfall (497 mm per year), as well as water waste by major agricultural industries. Known as Water Conservation and Water Demand Management (WC/WDM), this policy has established a hierarchical structure, application system, and established a fee structure for the purpose of ensuring long-term balances between water demand with the available supply of water within the country.

As the demand for water continues to escalate, it is estimated that South Africa will reach the limit of its water resources between 2020 and 2030. Therefore, under the NWRS policy strategy, there will be a decentralization of responsibility and authority for water resources management to 19 Catchment Management Agencies (CMAs) and Water User Associations at the local level to not only facilitate effective public participation, but integrate Water Resource Management in order to maximize coordinated development and conservation of precious resources. These CMAs will each operate in a defined water management area to manage resources at a regional level while maintaining cooperation and communication between the branches. Additionally, under NWRS policy, there will be strict penalties for the pollution of water.

However, while the NWRS plan appears to provide a solid building block for the creation of resource control and sustainable infrastructure, there remain inherent gaps within its policy suggestions. For example, although the NWRS policy is designed to allocate power to 19 Catchment Management Agencies, which will provide a guiding hand to municipalities and promote cooperation with other stakeholders (such as provincial and local government authorities, water services institutions, and water users), these CMAs are still in the process of being set up and functioning properly. Although the DWAF’s Annual Report 2006-2007 reported 4 CMAs as having been established in the past year (Thukela, Usuthu-Mhlathuze, Gouritz, and Olifants/Doom), the complete implementation of the CMAs will not be realized for many years due to the fact that important and germane processes, such as nominations to the Advisory Committees and national budgetary allocations, must still be outlined and put into action. Thus, municipalities and local governments will continue to allocate and manage water at local levels. However, due to varying levels of demand for water by municipal populations and the shifting means of access to South Africa’s main sources of water, the lack of an integrated administrative regional institution increases the infrastructural inequalities existing among the country’s different urban areas.

A recent example of this inequality shows itself when comparing the Gauteng Province and the Kwazulu-Natal Province’s contrasting infrastructure for furnishing household water service to end-users. Statistical data from 2000 noted that the Gauteng Province recorded the highest percentage of taps inside the dwelling (59%), and the lowest population percentage for boreholes and wells (1%). While the Kwazulu Natal Province showed a similar population percentage for taps inside the dwelling (55%), nearly 52% of the population reported that their main source or water for household use was a borehole or well. Although this data is from an infrastructural report 8 years ago, current data from the DWAF website leads one to conclude that there remains inherent inequalities among municipalities. In terms of population percentages without access to formal household water infrastructure, the Gauteng province continues to show a low 1% figure in comparison with the Kwazulu Natal Province figure at 36% of household population using “unsafe” water from dams, springs, streams, rivers, and other unsuitable sources. From the recent data, one concludes that the delays in CMA completion and continued conflict regarding municipal oversight of water services have continued to perpetuate unequal infrastructural development among municipalities. This has led to the conclusion that there is a serious gap between sustainability policy and provision of household infrastructure.

Suggestions for Improvement

As a concluding point to this briefing, the necessary steps toward improving each of the three major issues associated with water policy will be addressed: quality access to water services, adequate sanitation, and infrastructural sustainability. Although many consider that privatization is a viable option for the improvement of South African service delivery, it is maintained in this paper that South African present water policy contains the necessary elements for a successful and well-maintained water service delivery system utilizing traditional patterns of ownership and accessibility. It will be stressed in this section that water policy needs dramatic improvement in the efficiency in the implementing of the steps outlined in the National Water Resource Strategy of 2004, including the establishment of CMAs and enacting harsh penalties against polluters.

Water, Costs, Disease

Access to water service delivery shows a need for dramatic improvement of the Free Basic Water policy and the implementation of quality infrastructure. In looking at the results of the Free Basic Water policy steps, the suggested amount appears not adequate and the problems of cost-recovery for low-income families seems almost insurmountable. A number of suggestions come to mind to improve this policy. First, the recent problems in Kwazulu-Natal and the outbreaks of disease within the rural areas suggest that cost-recovery is not a suitable way for municipalities to regain the costs of installing infrastructure in rural and low-income areas. Patrick Bond argues in his article “Rationales for Basic Infrastructure,” that the cost-recovery model is inappropriate for municipal services because of the inability of low-income people to pay the extra costs, and is in fact wasteful of money since it costs more to administer the cost-recovery program than it benefits by actual input. Therefore, it is necessary for the cost-recovery pricing structure to be dismantled in such a way that this will allow for municipalities to gain access to the necessary funds for installing infrastructure in households. This can be accomplished through increasing the efficiency of the Municipal Infrastructure Fund by extending the deadlines for municipalities to apply for funds and providing personnel to oversee the effective use of such funding.


Second, it is suggested that the Free Basic Water Policy only apply to the part of the population below a certain income level. A substantive literature has by now appeared to lead to the conclusion that this policy is most beneficial to low-income populations within South Africa. Due to the glaring income inequalities across the population, however, this report suggests that populations above a certain income level should not receive this free water. Instead, it will be reserved for those with the greatest need for it. The necessary steps to fulfill this proposal would involve performing a periodic census to record the income levels of each citizen and by publicly electing a committee to oversee the project, decide upon the limits of whose who should receive Free Basic Water, and establish the amount of water that should be received per person per day. A benefit of this new resource allocation is that by restricting the percentage of the population that receives Free Basic Water, this step would allow for a larger amount of water to be allocated to needy families, decreasing their dependence on rivers and other unsafe sources of water for such basic functions such as cooking and cleaning. Additionally, forcing the wealthier portion of the population to pay for their own supply of water should decrease the overall total demand for it.

Getting Water to the Market

Finally, improving access to water service delivery will require the government to raise the standards of the types of infrastructure to be installed in the communities. While DWAF has been diligent in striving to achieve the “some for all” strategy outlined in the 1994 White Paper and the Water Services Act of 1997, the installation of communal taps 200 meters from homes is in itself not a suitable substitute for taps inside the dwellings or on the premises. The general budgeting problems within municipalities, and the lack of government funding to assist with infrastructure installation presents a broad reason for the existing poor-quality of much of the water-related infrastructure. However, rather than suggest that government merely find additional funding for municipalities, a more efficient policy proposal might be to concentrate the government’s efforts toward ensuring that the Catchment Management Agencies be set into motion as soon as possible. Based on the description of the CMA functions outlined in the 2004 NWRS document, it appears to be a viable policy initiative that will ensure a more equable distribution of resources and funding toward household water supply to a broad spectrum of municipalities, and thus balance any discrepancies between urban and rural areas through the control of funding and the coordination with local authorities. However, until the CMAs are fully operable, the organizational structure as it stands today will remain in place, continuing the existing problems of cutoffs while tolerating even substandard infrastructure. Therefore, the third policy suggestion to improve household access is to strengthen government efforts in elevating the CMAS to full operating capacity.

Through its plan to equalize standards among municipalities, the CMAs would also assist in correcting some of the problems with sustainability. This would be achieved through the policy of Integrated Water Resource Management Strategy (IWRS) outlined in the NWRS document. IWRS is defined as a process that promotes the coordinated development and management of water in order to maximize the economic and social welfare in an equitable manner. IWRS includes measures to balance the demand for water with existing supply so as to predict deficits up to 2020, whose solution will be stalled for as long as possible. Additionally, IWRS promotes coordination among the different levels of government through providing information about water resources and arranging meetings with all levels of government.

Providing Communities with Upgraded Water Service

In promoting coordination, the CMAs will be better able to enforce a standard level of infrastructure among municipalities, thus achieving a level of sustainability that will endure for future generations. Finally, the CMAs are also committed to Water Conservation and Water Demand Management strategy, which promotes conservation of the scarce water resources within South Africa. Moreover, the functions of the CMAs outlined in the National Water Resource Strategy could be improved in 2 ways: first, the CMAs should be required to hold frequent and regular meetings in order to maximize integration among all levels of government; second, although the NWRS laid out a tariff structure for water polluters, it is suggested that a harsher penalty system of stiffer fines be enacted for polluters. Not only will this create less of an incentive to discharge pollutants into water courses, but larger penalties can help fund sustainable infrastructure and other improvements to the provision of water service to households.

Due to the fact that sanitation is the least focused-upon issue within government, there are multiple steps suggested for improving household sanitation. As explored in the previous section, the sanitation problem has many causes similar to that of water service delivery: inadequate delivery, unsustainable infrastructure, and budgeting issues. While the government has made some progress in eradicating the bucket system (eradicating 71, 747 in the 2006/2007 period) and publishing the White Paper for sanitation, municipalities and local governments remain in charge of sanitation, thus leading to some of the aforementioned problems. Therefore, it is suggested that the government of the day create a national strategy for sanitation in which the policy would establish separate regional agencies to focus exclusively on the issues of sanitation and waste removal from municipalities.

Solving the Problem

In following the same strategy as NWRS, these agencies would run in a similar vein to the CMAs in that they would coordinate with local governments to install better sanitation infrastructure, through autonomously-run bodies instead of coordinated with water service delivery. Not only would this new agency create jobs, but it would focus desperately needed attention to the issue of sanitation within South Africa. Additionally, the government would create a fund for sanitation infrastructure, through which municipalities and local governments could apply for funding to continue eradicating the bucket system and communal taps. The government would also continue contracting out to NGOs and other foreign health organizations to supplement the resources needed to bring basic municipal infrastructure up to grade.

In comparing the respective problems of access, sanitation, and sustainability with existing policy in South Africa, it becomes clear that the cause of problems within these three areas is due to poor efficiency and lack of enforcement mechanisms, rather than the lack of a well-reasoned policy. Through the NWRS and respective White Papers, South Africa has created a detailed and integrated strategy for achieving water conservation and a more equal system of distribution among municipalities. The government’s focus should now be primarily focused on dedicating the time, energy, and funding to establish the Catchment Management Agencies in a timely manner in order to reverse the inefficiency of municipalities in setting up sustainable infrastructure.

Considering the lag in development of a proper sanitation policy, the government should also focus its efforts on achieving a national strategy for sanitation modeled after water service delivery. Finally, in cutting back the allocation of Free Basic Water to those not in need, it will allow a greater amount of water per family, thus achieving higher levels of water service delivery to rural areas and the poor. Through promoting integration, conservation, and a more coordinated approach to water and sanitation, the divisiveness over issues concerning service delivery can be narrowed and the entire operation can be made more efficient in providing services for future generations.