ALL DISCUSSIONS ABOUT WATER scarcity in South Africa begin by telling us that the county is water scarce. It’s the 39th driest country in the world and, due to el niños and el niñas, droughts and floods have become distinctive features of the climate. They have become more intense due to climate change. Drought has devastated several provinces, including Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the Eastern, Northern and Western Capes. Failing crops increase the urgency of changing to drought-resistant ones, livestock is dying and freshwater resources like rivers and streams are drying up. In urban areas, huge populations in cities and towns face crises when the dams (bulk water) that serve them run dry. It is not just Day Zero in Cape Town, but globally. Other cities like São Paulo and the entire south-west of the US are facing the same devastating challenge.
National government responsibility
A significant part of the Eastern Cape has been experiencing severe drought since 2015. It was declared a “disaster area” in October 2019. Losses have been heavy – livestock losses of at least R6.4 billion, the drying out of 19% of grazing areas and a loss of 5,600 jobs. What has received little attention is how people outside towns are coping with having no water, particularly in areas where infrastructure was already missing or failing. Comparing media coverage given to Cape Town with coverage of people’s suffering in the Eastern Cape, we can see who is treated like they matter.
What has the national government done to intervene when municipalities run dry? What steps will it take in municipalities that are already under administration or being investigated for corruption? Must people suffer because they live in these areas? The national government must ensure there is water for our survival and livelihoods. This means building new bulk water systems well before crisis hits; planning and building dams and other large, capital-intensive systems take years. It also means ensuring that infrastructure is functioning so that it delivers water to people’s households. Floods in Durban showed that climate change adaptation plans must be formulated and implemented.
Allocate water fairly for human need
But two “invisible” things must also be in place. The first relates to water allocation, ensuring that water is allocated to human needs. Legally the government is required to prioritise people’s basic water needs. The National Water Act (1998) requires that water first be provided to meet the basic needs of people and the ecological reserve (water needed to ensure the long-term sustainability of aquatic and associated ecosystems). Only then can the other sectors receive water.
In practice, the government typically prioritises the allocation of water to meet the needs of the economy – agriculture, industry, mining and the energy sector – since most of the population depends on it for employment and livelihoods (as do local elites and foreign companies). Water can be scarce because of variable rainfall and the changing climate, but then it is up to government to decide how water is allocated. When there is not enough water for people’s basic needs, but there is water for the economy, that is not “real water scarcity”.
Instead, we call it manufactured scarcity. This is not a new phenomenon. In contemporary South Africa, water allocation still follows a racialised path by focusing first on big business at the expense of poor communities, particularly in rural areas and townships.
The second invisible factor relates to “water conservation and demand management”. There are many creative ways for government and concerned citizens to ensure that the limited water we have goes a long way. The most obvious is to fix the leaks that allow water to be lost. In most municipalities, up to 40% of water pumped is lost through leaks. There have been some strong civil society programmes to train community plumbers to repair these leaks, but we need municipalities to create teams of community plumbers everywhere. Some municipal officials hesitate to do so, saying that they train community plumbers who then start their own businesses connecting households illegally. This increases water use and possible leaks.
Conservation can also mean eradicating trees and plants that suck up water, like invasive aliens such as eucalyptus, or encouraging farmers to use systems like drip irrigation, which is the most water-efficient irrigation system. It can mean adjusting toilets so that less water is used to flush, or not flushing when it is ‘yellow’. Re-using water or installing greywater systems draws less water from the tap.
In terms of demand management, the government uses tariffs and technology. Each municipality decides on its tariff structure based on its costs – what it pays its water board for bulk water and for the pipes that reticulate the water around the area. Usually the amount per kilolitre (1000 litres) is cheapest for the lowest levels of use, and some municipalities still provide free basic water (which covers the first part of a household’s use). When people use more, the cost per kilolitre increases, so that the more water you use, the higher the cost for each kilolitre.
Each municipality sets its own tariffs for different levels of usage. What matters to large, poor households is the cost for the water per kilolitre for the amount just over the free basic allowance (we know that these households cannot live on six or even nine kilolitres of free basic water). That is where they really feel the pinch. Activists need to scrutinise that tariff per kilolitre. After that, it is important that tariffs do rise steeply, so that the rich pay more per kilolitre when they use extremely high amounts. That brings in income for the municipality to subsidise poor users.
Since the rich can pay more and are willing to do so, tariffs do not ensure that they use much less (economists call this ‘price elasticity’). But when there is water scarcity, no one should be allowed to use more than a certain amount—even if they have money to pay for it! And while municipalities try to introduce water restrictions to achieve this, they are widely flouted and rarely enforced. Municipalities can turn to technology to assist in implementing their aims. This has been done perversely in some places to squeeze poor people who cannot and/or do not pay their water bills. Municipalities have turned meters from something that simply measures water usage (used around the world) to something that stops water coming from the tap in poor residential areas. Activists have opposed and fought these prepayment meters and water management devices (WMD) over the last decades. In fact, community members refer to WMDs as “Weapons of Mass Destruction/ Disempowerment”.
To keep people from using more than their fair share, municipalities can use these meters to achieve a different aim. (This was tried as a means of stopping excessive use of some households when Day Zero was looming in Cape Town). It is only fair that all households, rich and poor, face the same limits on how much water they can access. WMD can be installed in all households and used fairly.
This means that poor households must be able to access a higher amount of water to live properly, and everyone’s water must be cut off if they use above the same maximum amount. In other words, the amount of water that people can access needs to be fixed, irrespective of whether they can pay for it. Households need to take responsibility for paying a reasonable tariff if they use above a free basic amount, while no amount of money should buy them more than their fair share.
Water scarcity the new normal
Crises outside of the water system can undermine our water supply and have spotlighted the cracks in the system. Rampant load shedding and reduction across the country can affect pumping into reservoirs and have contributed to taps in cities like Pretoria and Johannesburg running dry. In eThekwini, looting and fires, and then floods, have disrupted the water supply and resulted in the pollution of rivers and the sea. In many areas wastewater treatment works are failing, threatening our water supply. Our water systems can and must be made more resilient.
Water scarcity is no longer an unusual occurrence in isolated areas of the country; it is the new normal. Rather than limp along and scramble to react, we must be proactive through clear civil society demands and ongoing advocacy to ensure that our water systems are resilient. Above all, the new normal means that we must move past coping and agree and embrace equitable new ways of living as the foundation for water justice.
Mary Galvin is an Associate Professor in Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg.
Anthony Kaziboni is Head of Research at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for the Future of Knowledge.