South Africa's water judgement

Published: Sunday 15 June 2008

in a landmark ruling on April 30 the High Court (hc) of South Africa announced prepaid water meters cannot be imposed on residents of Phiri--a township in Soweto outside Johannesburg. The judge, M P Tsoka, also ordered to provide residents of Phiri 50 litres per capita per day (lpcd) of free basic water, setting aside the city's decision to limit free water to 25 lpcd.

This was in response to a petition filed in July 2006 by Lindiwe Mazibuko and four others living in the poor settlements in Phiri. They challenged the 2004 decisions of the city of Johannesburg and its water utility, Johannesburg Water (Proprietary) Limited (jw), which they saw as infringement of their right to water. The petitioners argued the decision to limit free basic water supply to 6000 litres per household per month was based on the false assumption that a household comprised 8 persons.That was not the case, pointed out Phiri's petitioners, as most households supported on an average 16 persons.

Following the hc ruling, battlelines have been drawn with city managers deciding to appeal against the order. On May 14, the executive mayor of the city, Amos Masondo, made public the government's intention "We believe the judgment has been distorted somewhat and would like to place our perspective on the matter. Our basis for appeal will be set out systematically in legal argument." Meanwhile, many have started removing their prepaid water meters or bypassing them. JW has appealed to residents to refrain from such acts.

Prior to 2001 Phiri received an unlimited amount of water on a flat rate. As most residents of Phiri were very poor, the collection of water charges was also poor and huge arrears accumulated. In 2001, Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (dwaf) made free basic water a people's right across South Africa guaranteeing 6000 litres per household at the rate of 25 lpcd.

Basic water supply
  • Minimum quantity of potable water of 25 lpcd or 6000 litres per household per month
  • Minimum flow rate of not less than 10 litres per minute
  • Within 200 metres of a house-hold
  • With such effectiveness that no consumer is without water for more than seven full days a year
Source Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, South Africa
The court observed that 25 lpcd or 6000 litres per household per month was inadequate. The order stated, "The minimum specified amount should be considered as floor and not ceiling."

Pre-paid water
In 2004 prepaid water meters were introduced by jw, but only for residents of Phiri. The rest of Johannesburg continued to receive their water supply through conventional credit meters.

Prepaid water meters had tough implications for the residents of Phiri. Once a household used up its free quota of 6000 litres a month the supply was automatically cut off. The consumer was then expected to buy water on pre-payment till the time they became eligible for the next month's free allocation. As these were extremely poor families that were often not able to cough up cash for water they practically went without water for 15 days in a month.

Installation of prepaid water meters was part of the 450-million-rand 'operation Gcinamanzi' jw launched in Soweto--a project to minimize water wastage through an infrastructure revamp. In 2004 jw advised the residents of Phiri to opt for prepaid water meters; they were also told their water arrears would be written off if they did so. Water supply was to be cut off for all households without such meters in Phiri.

Judge Tsoka criticized the discriminatory nature of prepaid water policy "I am unable to understand why this credit control measure is only suitable in the historically poor black areas and not the historically rich white areas. Bad payers cannot be described in terms of colour or geographical area. " Tsoka ordered No customer is to be denied access to basic water services for non-payment if they prove their inability to pay.

Civil society organizations across the world welcomed this judgement. Ashfaq Khalfan, Coordinator of the Right to Water Programme of the Geneva based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (cohre) said, "It is a warning shot against attempts to forcibly impose pre-paid water systems on the poor elsewhere in Africa and globally." cohre was the amicus curiae in this litigation.

Jackie Dugard, Acting Director of Centre for Applied Legal Studies who helped the petitioners says, "The judgment shows a sensitive understanding of the law, the city's obligations, but above all our clients' lives".

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