Dec 22, 2006 (061222)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
Two recent issues of AfricaFocus Bulletin featured material from
the latest UNDP Human Development Report, focusing on
implications of the global water crisis for Africa. The introduction
mentioned in passing that South Africa had affirmed water as a human
right, but that there was active debate about whether government
policies were actually meeting that goal.
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains a critique of the limitations
of the UNDP approach on water rights, with particular attention to
South Africa, written by Patrick Bond of the Centre for Civil
Society (CCS) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Greg Ruiters
of the Municipal Services Project at Rhodes University. The article
was originally published in Pambazuka News (http://www.pambazuka.org) for November 23, 2006.
Holiday greetings and best wishes to all readers, both for you and
your families and for a New Year that brings advances on multiple
fronts for Africa and its people.
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[Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society and Greg
Ruiters directs the Municipal Services Project at Rhodes University
Institute for Social and Economic Research. This article appeared
in Pambazuka News (http://www.pambazuka.org) and in Z-Net
A fortnight ago, the global launch of the United Nations
Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report 2006 (HDR)
was in Cape Town, an appropriate choice in a diabolical way. South
Africa is apparently considered the UN's ideal-type setting - and
maybe deservedly so, for what might be called 'talk left' policies
accompanied by 'turn right' practices: turning the water tap off
for poor people.
The next day the Mail & Guardian newspaper carried an essay, 'Water
is a human right', by Kemal Dervis and SA finance minister Trevor
Manuel. Dervis served the World Bank from 1977-2001 before moving
home to Turkey as minister for economic affairs. In 2005 he won the
UN's third-highest job: UNDP chief administrator, taking over from
Mark Malloch Brown (now Kofi Annan's chief of staff), whose prior
job was public relations vice president at the Bank.
Manuel was chair of the board of governors of the Bank and IMF in
2000 and then ran their important Development Committee from
2001-2005. As SA finance minister he imposed - without consultation
- a neoliberal economic policy in 1996, partly designed by World
Bank economists using a Bank economic model whose predictions were
disastrously off the mark.
The Bank, by the way, advised former SA water minister Kader Asmal
in 1995 that he shouldn't provide the free water promised in the
Reconstruction and Development Programme and instead needed 'a
credible threat of disconnections'. By 2003, 275 000 families faced
water cutoffs due to non-payment, according to former water
director-general Mike Muller. In 1999 the Bank labeled its 1995
advice as 'instrumental' for the 'radical revision' of water
pricing policy here.
But now Dervis and Manuel advocate water as a 'human right'. Are
your bullshit detectors turned on, dear reader? As recently as
mid-2003, Manuel told City Press that 'free water has not benefited
the rural poor and is difficult and costly to implement'.
There are several problems. First, the UNDP's 20 liter per person
daily target provides just one and a half flushes of the toilet. At
least, recommend Dervis and Manuel, 'those who cannot afford to pay
[should] get it for free.' They claim, 'In South Africa, the basic
policy framework' along these lines 'is now in place' thanks to
'the adoption of a rights-based approach to water supply'.
In reality, although it did change from a straight neoliberal
approach at the time of the 2000 municipal elections, SA's 'basic
policy framework' for water pricing is still far from being
rights-based. Its roots can be found in these post-apartheid
the state drastically increased the price of municipal water
since 1994, especially affecting low-income black people - e.g., in
the largest 'market', Johannesburg, prices rose far higher than
inflation, in part because of the construction of obscenely
expensive Lesotho mega-dams whose raw water costs five times more
than pre-dam water (conservation was not considered a serious
operating subsidies from national to municipal governments were
chopped during the 1990s by 85% in real terms, as one agency
admitted, with especially large cuts in the national water budget
that supported wretched ex-Bantustan towns;
the much smaller municipal water subsidies together with the
doubling of unemployment in the years after apartheid (thanks to
Manuel's neoliberal macroeconomic GEAR policies) logically led to
much higher non-payment rates for impoverished citizens, and then
the disconnection of water supplies to roughly a million people per
year, according to several studies;
to deal with non-payment, the state began installing Ventilated
Improved Pitlatrines ('VIPs') for poor people even in urban
Johannesburg, as well as pre-paid water meters in low-income, black
neighbourhoods, starting in Soweto; and
meanwhile rural families relying on state-supplied communal water
taps witnessed the breakdown of many, if not most, systems, once
again because of affordability constraints that prevented the 'full
cost recovery' required to keep the taps turned on.
Johannesburg Water adopted the pre-paid meter tactic shortly after
the British government's 1998 banning of these same devices on
grounds that self-disconnections due to poverty represent a public
health threat - especially poignant for South Africa at a time of
the HIV/AIDS crisis and in 2000-02 the country's worst-ever cholera
outbreak. The matter is now being pursued by the Campaign Against
Water Privatisation in the courts.
Then in July 2001, the world-famous 'Free Basic Water' policy was
adopted, in an apparent policy U-turn. But even when implemented in
the larger municipalities - for regrettably it does not exist in
most smaller ones - the policy provides just six kiloliters per
household per month no matter the size of the household (or number
of HIV+ family members). After that relatively puny amount, the
price rises to excruciating levels.
To illustrate this last point, the city where Free Basic Water
policy originated, Durban, provided 6 kl/month free yet at the same
time more than doubled 7+ kl/month water bills between 1997-2004.
The result was the doubling of the average price of water paid by
poor people: from R2 to R4/kl over that period.
What was the impact on the poorest one third of the city's water
customers? Shockingly, in the city with the most acute AIDS,
cholera and other water-related diseases, the poorest third of
households lowered their consumption from 22 to 15 kiloliters from
1997-2004 (an extraordinary -0.55 'price elasticity', the measure
economists use to study the impact of prices on consumption).
What about Durban's richest third of all households? Their cut-back
was only 3 kl/month (from 35 to 32, a -0.10 elasticity). So the
price increases did not have a substantial impact on rich
households who waste the most water (in swimming pool evaporation
or watering English-style gardens).
The HDR compares Durban water prices with four other major Third
World cities and notes that from 7-20 kl/month, it is the highest
priced, a third more costly than Dakar and seven times more pricey
But ironically, the HDR then praises Durban in three bizarre and
basically inaccurate ways:
'in Durban, South Africa, the lifeline tariff results in a
progressive distribution of water subsidies because 98% of poor
households are connected';
'Durban, South Africa, provides 25 litres of water a day free of
charge-the lifeline or social tariff-with a steep increase above
this level. This is an important part of the legislative framework
for acting on the right to water';
'As part of a national strategy of water for all, South Africa
transferred a water utility in Durban to a concession. Despite
concerns about equity, there has been marked improvement in access
among poor households.'
First, by no stretch of the imagination are 98% of poor households
connected to Durban's water grid. Indeed there are ongoing
evictions in still-proliferating shack settlements, which contain
probably between 1/5th and 1/3rd of households.
Second, the 25 liters per day free of charge is an overestimate of
what Durban provides larger families, for the 6 kl/month works out
to those measly two flushes worth only if the family size is below
eight. Women-headed households with AIDS orphans and backyard
renters or room tenants are not atypical, and disputes over the
small amounts of available water can be debilitating, especially at
times of funerals or family events when much more water is needed.
Third, as far as a private concession goes, the UNDP HDR probably
means not Durban but Dolphin Coast (since the latter is run by a
French for-profit firm while Durban's managers are public sector
executives who simply have a for-profit orientation). But sources
as diverse as the South African government Human Sciences Research
Council and New York Times report that the Dolphin Coast experiment
is a failure with regard to poor people's access.
To promote 'core strategies for overcoming national inequalities in
access to water', the UNDP report advocates 'establishing lifeline
tariffs that provide sufficient water for basic needs free of
charge or at affordable rates, as in South Africa.' But not only
have municipalities sabotaged the African National Congress 2000
election manifesto promise: 'ANC-led local government will provide
all residents with a free basic amount of water, electricity and
other municipal services, so as to help the poor. Those who use
more than the basic amounts will pay for the extra they use.' As
noted, the convex shape of municipal water price tariffs negates
this promise, a classic example of micro-neoliberalism.
In addition, the SA Treasury, the Department of Water Affairs and
Forestry, the Development Bank of Southern Africa and the
Department of Provincial and Local Government persistently sought
for-profit partners - and some NGOs which also have a full-cost
recovery mentality - to implement policy. The UNDP, World Bank, IMF
and World Trade Organisation have been pushing water
commercialization for years across Africa.
This is why it is amusing to read, from Dervis and Manuel: 'Too
much of the policy discussion on water delivery has been dominated
by a dead-end debate on privatisation versus state ownership'. They
advocate 'some combination of public and private sector
involvement.' These are weasel words, in view of the record of
water privatisation in Africa: systematic failure.
On cross-border water transfers, the HDR notes 'the potential
benefits of cooperation' by arguing that that the Lesotho Highlands
Water Project 'is generating revenue for Lesotho and improved water
for South Africa'. Unmentioned are the 1998 SA National Defense
Force invasion of the Katse Dam site (when two dozen sleeping
Basotho soldiers were killed), the massive ecological damage, the
tens of thousands of peasants displaced, and the massive increase
in water prices caused by this notoriously corrupt, apartheid-era
sanctions-busting mega-dam scheme - or the alternative strategy
(never attempted) of conservation and less uneven regional
In one painfully honest paragraph, however, the UNDP report
concedes some problems: 'As the reforms have rolled out, they have
generated a political debate over design and implementation. Some
argue that the 25-litre threshold for free basic water is too low.
Supplies in some areas have been erratic, forcing households to
collect water from far away. Moreover, government pricing policies
have led to supply cutoffs for nonpayment in some areas, raising
concerns about affordability. Progress in sanitation has been less
impressive than in water. There are still 16 million people- one in
three South Africans-without access to basic sanitation. The
absence of a consensus on an acceptable basic level of sanitation,
allied to problems in generating demand, has contributed to the
failure.' This is a damning indictment of post-apartheid water
policy design and implementation mistakes.
It helps explain why SA witnessed nearly 6000 protests in a recent
12-month period (reported by the SA Police Services). South
Africa's water wars have become world famous, as citizens' groups
illegally reconnect pipes that have been cut off due to nonpayment,
or destroy the hated pre-paid water meters, or dump excrement from
the apartheid-era 'bucket system' of sanitation at the doors of
their elected officials.
In addition, the UNDP report criticizes Johannesburg's
controversial contract with Paris-based Suez, 'because
delegation-the transfer of operating authority from local
government to utility and from utility to third companies-can
obscure accountability and delivery' and because Joburg metro is
'both utility shareholder and regulator.' Captive regulators are
ubiquitous in SA, and the national government's failure to even
'name and shame' recalcitrant municipalities - as promised by then
water minister Ronnie Kasrils in 2003 - is now legendary. The only
serious watchdogs of the Joburg Water company have been the
AntiPrivatisation Forum activists in several black townships who
keep up pressure for human rights. A recent report by the APF
www.apf.org.za notes the persistence of dissatisfaction regarding
pre-paid meters in Soweto and Orange Farm, for example.
In its attempt to sanitise Pretoria's modified-neoliberal water
policy, the UNDP HDR reports, incorrectly, that 'A minimum amount
of water for drinking is now guaranteed as a legally enforceable
right.' The UN officials should have made a short side-trip from
Cape Town to Wallacedene. Community leader Irene Grootboom won a
seminal Constitutional Court battle against government in September
2000 but her 700-member community still lacked the most essential
water services years later.
In sum, the UNDP HDR and the Dervis/Manuel water-rights discourse
are less absurd than SA health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang's
vegetable stall at the recent Toronto AIDS conference. But given
the neoliberal devils in the details, water pricing reform is still
long overdue in South Africa. Without it, government's 'talk left,
turn right' will continue to be met by substantial community
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