eThekwini: drought hits the poors
Eye on Civil Society column
3 July 2007
eThekwini: drought hits the poors
by Orlean Naidoo, Dudu Khumalo and Patrick Bond
Is Durban a model for South Africa and the world?
In the field of water, some say yes. National Geographic magazine
awarded chief water official Neil MacLeod global recognition a few years
ago, and the city won South African recognition as best metro in 2006.
In three ways, we disagree:
• the municipality’s new system of ‘debt relief’ is hurting people
living in Council Flats, as well as shackdwellers without proper supplies;
• in rural parts of eThekwini, water and sanitation are substandard; and
• for those hooked up to the eThekwini grid who pay their water bills
regularly, poor people are suffering while the rich hardly notice price
First, city officials Derek Naidoo and Michael Singh met Chatsworth
council flatdwellers last month to explain the new ‘indigent package’: a
conditional housing transfer, a minimalist 50kWh/household/month supply
of Free Basic Electricity – but only for a few tens of thousands of
households who consume less than 150kWh/month (not the hundreds of
thousands who most need the promised free services) – and water debt
Sadly, the majority of poor people living in shacks are getting services
worse than urban residents did during apartheid.
Westcliff residents argue that a universal entitlement is preferable to
an indigence policy, because the latter divides poor from working
people: a violation of constitutional equity.
For poor people labeled indigent, the water service includes a new kind
of flow restrictor that stops your water after a certain point.
But what if you are holding a funeral or wedding? You have to pay
another R300 to have a different meter installed, which may take days.
As for arrears, they will be capitalised, repaid by siphoning off 20% of
each bill. Yet the Free Basic Water is still just 6000 liters per
household per month, which is not enough, as argued in an ongoing court
case by activists in Soweto. (MacLeod filed testimony on behalf of
Johannesburg Water in that case, which we think takes the debate backwards.)
Moreover, the fixed charge, water loss insurance and VAT together vastly
exceed the amount we pay for water consumed. For those with no income
who are unemployed, the arrears payments are unrealistic.
And the amount per kiloliter is up to R6.62, a vast increase over prior
Second, the problems are compounded in rural communities. Consider three
areas around the Inanda Dam, which ironically supplies Durban with most
of its water: Kwangcolosi, Mzinyathi and Maphephetheni.
After the trauma of displacement – still uncompensated – the water
system provided after the construction of Inanda Dam was welcome, but
the designs are inadequate.
Residents get either a 200 liter drum filled up by trickle each day –
which is not enough for big families, and for when there are traditional
events like weddings or funerals – or alternatively they go to
poorly-maintained community standpipes that lack a good soakaway.
Mud is caused by livestock, which cannot get to the dam for water, and
often women wait in long queues. There are still communities nearby with
no water system.
For billing, confusion reigns because some are being charged and some
As for sanitation, the Urinary Diversion system is the cause of
dissatisfaction, because of filth, leading the majority of people to use
their old pit toilets instead.
Ultimately, eThekwini policy should have service levels just as high for
rural people, so that dignity, public health and gender equity are
achieved: good, high-pressure taps inside the house, and flush toilets
with septic tanks.
Third, upper-income eThekwini residents still have the best deal. The
majority of Durban Water and Sanitation funding is raised through tariffs.
The 1997 consumption of water by the one third of the city’s residents
who have the lowest income and pay their bills regularly was 22
Shortly afterwards, MacLeod introduced ‘Free Basic Water’, but for just
the first 6 kl/hh/month, and steep increases in price for the next
blocks of water were imposed. By 2003, the (inflation-adjusted) price of
the average kiloliter of water consumed by the lowest-income third of
billed residents had doubled from R2 in 1997 to R4.
According to city official Reg Bailey, that price increase resulted in
average consumption by low-income bill-paying consumers diminishing from
22 to 15 kl/household/month during the same period, an extremely large
impact for what should be a basic need.
In contrast, for middle- and high-income consumers, the price rise was
higher, but the corresponding decline in average consumption far less.
Indeed, the United Nations Development Programme’s 2006 Human
Development Report indicates that Durban has an extremely convex-shaped
tariff curve, compared to several other Third World cities. Durban has
by far the highest prices in the 6-20 kl/month range, the range in which
many of the lowest-income people consume.
Even though this problem is now known to city officials, the 2007 budget
proposals amplify the water inequalities, by raising the price by 15%
for all residents and businesses regardless of consumption levels.
This will have a severely adverse impact on poor people, many of whom
will pay R8.22/kl for consumption in excess of 6kl/hh/month, leading to
further disconnections and to health and socio-economic crises.
Durban is feted for good performance, but during a time of HIV/AIDS,
cholera and diarrhoea epidemics, more not less water is needed.
The policy should be the same for all residents, and raise the lifeline
supply to at least 50 liters/person/day (even Johannesburg is offering
poor residents 10 kl/hh/month, 67% higher than Durban).
Otherwise the current aqua-apartheid system will generate ongoing
protests of the sort Durban has become even more famous for.
(Naidoo is a Westcliff residents leader and Khumalo is a water activist
from Inanda; both are community interns at the UKZN Centre for Civil
Society, which is directed by Bond.)
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