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South Africa flounders in its search for free water

Racist discrimination in apartheid South Africa even sank to the level of water access. Three years after the introduction of landmark water laws, authorities are struggling to put them into practice.

David Shezi didn't necessarily think he was doing anything criminal when he stole some water one day in January. He was doing no more than any other man would do to help his family survive in conditions of extreme poverty.

With an income of only R100 ($8.65) a month and with eight children to support, Shezi simply could not afford to pay for the water supplied to his home via a water metre – and used a pipe instead to illegally siphon it off in his village in KwaZulu-Natal.

However, despite a government ruling that all South Africans should have free access to a basic amount of clean and safe water, Shezi was arrested for stealing water. The case of Shezi sums up South Africa's struggle to shake off apartheid's legacy of people's unequal access to water.

In 1998 the government ruled for the first time that all South Africans should have the right to clean water. This was followed up in 2000 with a ruling that households should receive the first 6,000 litres of water per month for free, after which they would have to pay on a rising scale.

Water authorities are still trying to work out how to put these measures into practice. Many, like Shezi's local authority, favour a market-based approach – charging fees and involving private companies in water management.

The minister of Water Affairs, Ronnie Kasrils, says that 34 per cent live in areas where authorities have either not yet decided to implement the free water policy or have decided to do so later.

Although seven million black South Africans have been linked up to a water supply since the end of apartheid in 1994, another seven million – or 15 per cent of the population – still have no access to any public water services, and 47 per cent are without adequate sanitation.

David McDonald, co-director of the Municipal Services Project, which has been monitoring the privatisation of water services in South Africa, says privatisation "is most often seen as part necessity, part political choice because of fiscal constraints (reducing public borrowing, taxes and outlays)".

Johannesburg Municipality last year entered into a joint venture with French water multinational Suez Lyonnaise and British Northumbrian Water. Under a consortium known as Johannesburg Water Management (JOWAM), the private companies administer the billing and quality of the city's water supply.

"We are losing Rand 130m [$11 million] every year from people who are registered water users but are not paying for their services," explains Anthony Sill, chief executive of the council's water division. "Our private partner will not only improve the rate of revenue collection, but will improve the quality of service delivery, which is good news for consumers."

Lyla Mehta, a fellow at the Institute of Development Studies in Britain's University of Sussex who has reviewed water privatisation schemes in Britain, Chile, Mexico and Zimbabwe, challenges this assumption.

"Outside private providers tend to prioritise profit maximisation and efficiency and not poor people's rights to water, and they tend to define efficiency in terms of water treatment and not people's lives."

In her paper, Water for the 21st Century 2001: Challenges and Misconceptions, Mehta says that private water companies in the countries she has studied, "have tended to focus on richer customers; prices have often been raised beyond agreed levels and people who cannot pay have been cut off."

Many are furious over the Johannesburg venture. The South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu), which represents municipal workers throughout the country, sees this as a threat to its workers and to water users. Samwu water projects officer Lance Veotte says: "Privatisation is a threat to jobs and quality service to the poor. Communities are up in arms about leaking pipes, incorrect billing and health concerns as dogs have been found in reservoirs and human foetuses in water purification areas."

Greg Ruiters, a political science lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand, believes that it is the private water operator who stands to benefit. He says poor people "who cannot afford to pay for this basic necessity are in for hard times. Water is a basic need and should not be commercialised."

He is also concerned about the inequalities that exist between urban areas and rural communities: "Prices [in urban areas] are lower because of economies of scale, the established infrastructure and assured cost recovery," he says.

"The converse is true in rural areas. The irony is that rural people who can least afford it are paying more than those in urban areas," he adds.

Ruiters estimates that around 12 per cent of South Africa's water is consumed by households. But of that amount, more than half goes into white people's gardens and swimming pools, and less than a tenth is consumed by black households.

"Minimal water access is one reason for black South Africans suffering by far the highest infant mortality and water-related disease rates in all of Africa in relation to per capita Gross Domestic Product," he adds.

This is dramatically illustrated in David Shezi's KwaZulu-Natal province, which is still suffering the fall-out from a cholera epidemic that began in 2000 and spread to other parts of the country last year. The epidemic killed over 150 people and left 8,000 more with the water-borne disease.

Although private companies had laid hundreds of kilometres of pipes to bring water to people in the rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal, many could not afford to pay for the water and walked long distances to find rivers and streams, many of which were unclean.

Questioned last year about the disaster on national television, water affairs director-general Mike Muller conceded: "Perhaps we were being a little too market-orientated."

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Panos London

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