South Africa sets pace on rural water

Government promises to reach all by 2008
From Africa Renewal: 
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Nearly 10 million more South Africans have access to clean water than a decade ago. Photo: iAfrika Photos/Eric Miller

As South Africa celebrates 10 years of freedom, it also is being hailed by the international community as a model for other developing countries in providing rural water. By the end of this year, 10 million South Africans who were deprived a decade ago will have access to clean water.

"We are really past the international millennium development targets," South Africa's then-Water and Forestry Minister Ronnie Kasrils told Africa Renewal in April. "In the year 2008, all our people will have access to clean water." Mr. Kasrils, who has since been appointed intelligence minister, was in New York attending the 12th session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development.

A basic right

In 1994, some 14 million of the country's 40 million people did not have access to safe drinking water and 21 million were without adequate sanitation. To confront those challenges, South Africa wrote into its constitution provisions guaranteeing access to sufficient food and water as a basic right. The government adopted the Reconstruction and Development Programme, a social development policy that emphasized state provision of basic services. One of its goals was to ensure that there was a tap within 200 metres of every household in the rural areas.

South Africa also introduced a policy providing the first 6,000 litres of water per month per family for free. If the family consumes more than that, it is charged a stepped tariff. "That is designed to ensure that the wealthier are able to cross-subsidize the very poor," said Mr. Kasrils.

His government inherited a country with no single national institution responsible for water delivery. New legislation had to be written and municipalities had to be established in many black rural areas that lacked even these basic institutions. Mr. Kasrils conceded that much still has to be done. Some of the newly created municipalities are only beginning to become functional. In rural areas, some 5 million people still have to walk to distant rivers and springs to fetch water.

South Africa's success has a lot to do with political will, but unlike many other developing countries, it also has the resources to implement its programmes. It is sub-Saharan Africa's wealthiest nation with an average per capita income of $2,800, compared to a continental average of $300.

Against privatization

But even for South Africa, the provision of sustainable water services in urban areas remains a major challenge. Government critics insist that cost-recovery programmes have rendered water unaffordable for the urban poor. The non-governmental Anti-Privatization Forum has charged that the new policies have cut off millions of urban South Africans from their water supply.

Mr. Trevor Ngwane, an activist with the Anti-Privatization Forum, says privatization acts against every South African's constitutional right because water is "no longer provided on the basis of need but on the ability to pay. Many poor people in South Africa simply cannot afford to pay for water." In urban areas, the group says, the cost of water is rising and private corporations are installing pre-paid metres that stop delivering water when the payment has been exhausted. The NGO estimates that millions of poor urban dwellers have been cut off, but the government disputes its figures.

Following the adoption of market-led economic policies in 1996, the government reduced grants and subsidies to urban municipalities, forcing some to turn to commercialization as a way of generating revenue. Mr. Kasrils maintains that out of 284 municipalities in the country, only 5 have service and management agreements with private water companies.

South Africa's two major cities, Cape Town and Johannesburg, have the highest number of private water ventures in Southern Africa. Zambia has two projects, while Angola plans to establish two and Tanzania three. "There is no other way to create sustainable service providers, than by ensuring that those who get services pay for these, with appropriate transparent arrangements made for subsidizing the poor when a government deems that necessary," argues Mr. David Grey, senior water adviser at the World Bank. He says that simply charging for what is delivered and collecting bills in a timely manner is a pragmatic starting point for governments in the region, but adds that they need to attract service providers with sound finances.