STRUGGLING TO PROVIDE SAFE DRINKING WATER TO THE
With a population of 3 million, Johannesburg is
South Africa’s biggest city. Johannesburg
Water, the city’s public water utility was
formed in 1999 as part of a transformation project
by Johannesburg’s municipal government. Lacking
management expertise, the new company signed a management
contract in 2001 with a consortium led by the French
company Suez. The management company, called JOWAM,
operates the water utility and fills various management
positions within Johannesburg Water.
In an effort to keep bills paid and
reduce water losses, the company has installed pre-paid
water meters in some Johannesburg neighbourhoods.
A pre-paid water meter is a water pump that is activated
by a pre-paid card. People must pay in advance for
what they use.
Director General of Water Affairs and Forestry:
One great benefit is that people
don’t have to put up with the administration,
the paperwork of bills. It’s nice and predictable.
You know how much you are paying.
Jeanette Nzuma lives with her family in Orange Farm,
the biggest “informal settlement” in
South Africa. Located in the far south end of the
Johannesburg region, the settlement is home to about
350,000 people, most of whom live in shacks and
are unemployed. She and her husband salvage their
precious water supply however they can. Used wash
water is poured on the garden. The Nzuma’s
water used to come from a free communal tap. Now,
they must buy it from a pre-paid meter.
COST OF CLEAN WATER
In South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal
province, water was free during apartheid. But three-quarters
of the population were not connected to the system
and relied on streams, springs and boreholes for water.
In the community of Madlebe, nine communal taps had
been installed as part of an emergency relief program
to provide clean water. They were paid for by the
municipality as a matter of public health.
Experiments with pre-paid water meters have a bleak
history in South Africa.
In the late 1990s, local governments across South
Africa were encouraged to practice more rigorous financial
management and cost recovery. A local water board,
which had taken over responsibility for water service
in the Madlebe area, was given the task of installing
prepaid meters. This included converting the nine
communal water taps.
Between 1997 and 2000 prepaid meters
were installed throughout the area. The water board
saw the taps as a way to prevent arrears and improve
their cash flow. The local authorities argued that
cost recovery was necessary in this area because
of the absence of industry or wealthy households
that could subsidize water delivery to the poor.
A CHOLERA OUTBREAK
A connection fee of 50 Rand, about $10 Canadian,
allowed people to use the prepaid meters. But in
an area where the average monthly income is about
500 Rand, the connection fee was beyond reach. Unable
to pay, many people turned once again to nearby
streams and rivers for water. The decision was deadly
– the rivers were infected with cholera.
The areas previously served by the
communal taps were part of the first areas hit with
cholera. The deadly disease, which causes severe
diarrhea and dehydration that, untreated, leads
to death, spread like wildfire. The first cases
were reported in August 2000. By December 2000 the
number of victims was in the thousands. By the time
the outbreak was contained, 120,000 people were
infected with cholera and 265 had died.
The federal water ministry had to step in with water
trucks to provide Madlebe with clean water. Fifty
tanks were also installed. The government spent
close to 1 million rand containing the outbreak.
All the prepaid meters were re-converted to communal
taps payable on a 25-rand/month, flat-rate system.
Partly in response to the cholera outbreak, the
South African government initiated a "free
water policy" in February 2000. Every household
in South Africa is entitled to 6000 litres of free
water every month. The amount represents the absolute
minimum daily use per person (25 litres) for an
eight-person household. By comparison, a Canadian
household of eight people would use 82,320 litres/
month - thirteen times more - the difference between
a water-rich, first-world country, and a water-scarce,
African country struggling to deliver clean, affordable
water to the poor.