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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

South Africa Water

Air Date: Week of

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Water was a key issue at the sustainable development summit this year. Worldwide, more than a billion people do not have clean water to drink. South Africa has been able to distribute water to seven million people in seven years. But to do that, it has embraced a free-enterprise model for charging people, including the poor, for water. Bob Carty reports on whether using the market is the best strategy towards sustainable development.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

There’s nothing more basic to life than water. Yet about a billion people have to, somehow, get by with dirty drinking water. The world’s leaders here at this Summit pledge to cut that number in half by the year 2015. South Africa is already on the way. The end of apartheid brought more water taps to the desperately poor, but it came at a price, literally. A market-based model for water delivery has proved to be less workable than the government would have liked. Bob Carty has our story.


CARTY: A group of women and young girls are filling up plastic containers with water. The water flows from a brand new stand pipe sticking out of the ground in the Province of KwaZulu-Natal. One pre-teen girl here balances a 55 pound bucket on her head. Another girl struggles with a wheelbarrow filled with three of those jugs. It’s probably twice her own weight. The two of them head up the hill toward home.

This is how many South Africans get their water everyday, many times a day. But they have water due to the effort of the South African government.

VIDEO: (over music) To date, the program has delivered water services to seven million people in seven years. South Africa’s success will make the country a valuable contributor to the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. (fades under)

MULLER: One beats one’s own drum but in rural areas, many places people do say we do actually now have water.

CARTY: Mike Muller directs the national Department of Water. When his government came to power in 1994, one-third of all South Africans lacked clean drinking water. Mike Muller’s department cut that number in half. And that became one of the country’s bragging points at the summit.

MULLER: We think the rate of delivery is pretty good. And if you compare it to the Millenium development goals to which all our heads of state have committed, which is to half the proportion without safe water by the year 2015. So they made that resolution in 2000. So in 15 years to halve it, we’ve halved it in seven years. So we’re going pretty well.

CARTY: But it’s not going so well for many South Africans. And you see it driving around the township on the outskirts of Cape Town following two small trucks from the municipal government.


DAVIS: These are the people that come in and cut the water off of the people. They’re going to lose their water now, and they don’t know what to do. What are they going to do without the water?

CARTY: My traveling companion is Cecelia Davis, a resident of this township. The trucks up ahead suddenly stop in front of a small house.


CARTY: Two armed security guards get out of one truck, six men jump out of the other with wrenches and hammers.


CARTY: The workers lift up a water covering on the street and starting shutting off the meter going into the home.


CARTY: He’s turning off the water now, right?

DAVIS: Yes, he’s turning it off now.

CARTY: In 15 minutes the job is done. The residents of this household are now like thousands of others in this township who are fortunate enough to have water pipes in their homes, but no running water. One of them is Cecelia Davis herself. Cecelia is a single mother with four children still at home. And home is a dark, cold, three-room cement shelter, with no water.


DAVIS: I’m opening the tap, but there’s no water coming out. No water, not even a little bit now. No water. Because the water has been cut off the meter has been removed. That was last October.

CARTY: Last October?

DAVIS: Last year, October.

CARTY: Almost a year?

DAVIS: Almost a year.

CARTY: So how do you get water?

DAVIS: I get water from an opposite neighbor, with the pots.

CARTY: For Cecelia Davis, life now revolves around fetching water in pots from the neighbors, one pot for cooking, one to flush the toilet, ten to do the washing. Cecelia Davis has no income, just the support of neighbors and family, and that’s not uncommon here in the townships where 60 percent are unemployed. Over the years the city raised Cecelia’s monthly water bill by 300%. She couldn’t pay it. And even though she had two sick children in the house, the city cut her water off. It wasn’t what she expected from the post-apartheid governments of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.

DAVIS: Before the new government, they weren’t doing these things. I’m very, very, very disappointed in the government of South Africa really.

CARTY: And Cecelia Davis is not alone, according to Professor David McDonald.

MCDONALD: Our estimate, based on a large national survey that we did in 2001, is that as many as ten million people have had their water cut off since 1994. Now, some of that has been very short term, but some of this has been for months and months on end. People are very, very angry.

CARTY: David McDonald is a Canadian who has been working in South Africa studying municipal services. McDonald says that when the African National Congress came to power, they privatized water services. Most water boards were still publicly owned, but they had to run like a business. So they implemented full cost recovery, charging people for water, regardless of their ability to pay.

The goal was to discourage people from wasting water and to collect money for reinvestment in more water pipes for more people. Some see this as a good form of sustainable development. David McDonald does not. He argues that with pressure from the World Bank, cost recovery here became an inflexible ideology.

MCDONALD: And that’s okay at the top end for people who can afford it. So someone might think twice about filling their swimming pool or washing their car yet again. But at the bottom end where people are extremely poor, people are saying things to us like, "I have to choose between water and food." So it’s a question of at what point do you start cost recovery? This notion that you’re saving money is really a false notion because of the hidden cost of privatization.


CARTY: Those hidden costs are apparent here, back at the water pipe at KwaZulu-Natal. Two years ago, the municipality installed meters on the public taps. You could only get water if you paid in advance for a computerized card to insert in the meter. Getting water became like going to a gas station. People found they couldn’t afford the water they needed, and they smashed the pre-paid meters. So, the local authorities put locks on the pipes. And then, according to David Hemson of the Human Science Research Council of South Africa, a disaster happened.

HEMSON: It forced people to go back to the original sources of water, to rivers and to polluted streams and the like. And that was a direct cause of the cholera epidemic. There’s no doubt about that. We’re looking at about 350,000 people who were affected, just below 300 people dying from cholera. There were emergency hospitals set up. Tents were set up for rehydration purposes. The cost has been tremendous. And just imagine if all of that money is being spent on providing services in the first place?


CARTY: Water cut-offs have generated protests across the country. Here at the largest demonstration outside the Summit in Johannesburg, there are placards reading, "Our water is not for sale." Many in the crowd are wearing T-shirts against privatization. They believe cost recovery will lead to the takeover of water by foreign corporations.

In part because of these protests, and in part because of the cholera epidemic, the South African government has now changed its water policy. There is still cost recovery, but there is also a pledge to provide at least six gallons per person, per day, free of charge. But many of the poor say they have yet to see it.

There continues to be a debate here about the balance between the market and the state in delivering something so essential as water. Privately, government officials admit they went a bit too far in making the liquid of life a commercial commodity.

For Living on Earth, I’m Bob Carty.




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