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Systemic dysfunction places affordable water out of reach: anecdotes of exasperation

Having won recognition of the Right to Water, we must now move on to the complexities of implementation. It is too easy for those responsible for implementation—and even activists—to gloss over these complexities as long held positions are incredibly comfortable. Making water affordable is one of the main barriers to overcome in order for the right to water to be implemented. Ensuring public provision is one way we aim to do so, but the South African context shows that strong regulation, procedures for citizen recourse and strengthening public providers are also critical.

Affordable water is one of the hottest topics on South Africa’s main water and sanitation listserv. Didn’t the free basic water (FBW) policy solve the problem? Even if poor people quality for FBW through municipality’s indigent policy (there is that darn Dickensonian word again), the tariff structure after the FBW block often rises so steeply that it can undo the gains of the FBW for large households, which are the majority of poor households. What exists on paper is often delusory in South Africa—the “how” of implementation is another reality. In this case, there is no national regulation of tariff setting and increases, or tariff guidelines in place.

But what about when it is not tariffs that prevent people from accessing their right to water? When the procedural craziness of the system is virtually impossible to navigate successfully or to win recourse? Who is regulating that?

In Johannesburg, only an estimated one quarter of needy people who qualify actually access the social package that provides FBW. It is accepted that this is primarily due to poor knowledge about how to apply, and the amount of effort it takes to apply for people who lack income for transport or who cannot take time off of work to do so.

However the system goes further in its non-discrimination in faulty billing and bureaucratic inflexibility in responding to the issue. I recently travelled with a former water regulator, member of the Ministerial Advisory board on water, and advocate of citizen’s rights—who was receiving exorbitant bills for water in his Johannesburg home. He recounted his many efforts over a year and a half to rectify the billing errors, but was filled with frustration that he had made no progress on this issue. I was stunned by the inability of someone with such experience, top connections, and assertiveness and education, to have this experience.

Once his bills quadrupled from R600 per month to R2400 a month, he hired a leak detector to detect and repair the underground leaks on his property. This was done at the cost of R4000 for the actual repairs. His bills fell back to R600 but this was shortlived– in a couple of months, they had risen again to the R2400 mark. When he phoned the City of Johannesburg billing department (and was given a reference number), he was instructed that they would actually do a meter reading since their bill was based on an estimated 47kl per month for a household of four, which was inaccurate given that no one was home all day. Six months later and no progress made, he realized that he was misinformed and had to come into the office and apply to have his meter tested. Taking a day off to file this application, he recounted being treated disrespectfully and required to pay R850 to have the meter tested. He made the payment. In the meantime, he brought the leak detector back to see if another leak had maybe arisen (which would mean the residence was at fault rather than a faulty meter, meter reading, or gross estimation). No leaks were detected on the property, but the leak detector could not actually read the meter as well to see if it was faulty as there was a beehive on the meter that had to be removed first (honestly, this probably explains the use estimations rather than an actual reading but the City of Johannesburg did not raise the matter as a constraint). In the meantime, the R850 paid for meter testing was put toward his outstanding bill! So the meter remained unread and untested, and the poor soul continues to pay R2400 per month so that he continues to receive water. On this basis his annual water bill will reach R28 800.

Given their already compromised position due to poverty, many poor South Africans experience deep levels of despair about water services. Nothing made this more evident that the extensive service delivery protests that have flamed throughout the country over the past few years.

The ANC government has rolled out infrastructure to millions of people with services since 1994, which is the basis of its claim to have met the Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people without water. How real is this? Like its constitution specifying “access” to water as a right, it masks the reality experienced by many people. Do these systems still work in the face of poor, if any, maintenance? And if people have a problem with their services, how responsive is local government? And if local government is not responsive, what recourse do people have?

Although it exists in our extensive policies, South Africa needs a strong regulatory system with teeth, one that allows people recourse—but we also need to strengthen our local municipalities with skills and staff so that they can meet people’s needs. While these issues are recognised by all stakeholders as requiring attention, they have not moved far past dialogue.

Exit, voice, and loyalty are all options when you have resources. You can leave the country, find new routes of expression or simply pay the bill. But what does a worker do when faced with the same faulty billing and outrageously poor customer service from the City’s Water department? Exit and loyalty hold no promise as she can’t leave and cannot afford to simply pay a hugely inflated bill. If people’s voices are not even registered, they are bound to enter a cycle of rapidly escalating bills, eventual debt and possible disconnection, and disruption to the household. South Africa may be generous in its granting of basic “rights” but these rights have little meaning if there are no recourse mechanisms for sustaining such rights.