EMG Water 01The current drought has brought the critical need for water to be well managed into sharp focus. South Africa’s storage dams are currently, on average, less than half full and Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Des van Rooyen has declared all but one of the nine provinces as “drought disaster areas”.

On paper at least, the ANC government identifies water as a critical resource for economic development. Their Five-Point Plan for water and sanitation includes:
* Maintaining and upgrading existing water and sanitation infrastructure
* Building new dams and developing ground water
* Improving water quality
* Developing smart technologies for water and sanitation information management
* Ensuring an enhanced and integrated regulatory regime such as water-use licensing.

Delivering water to your tap
and dealing with the resulting wastewater
is ultimately the responsibility of your local authority.



Since coming to power in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) government has given access to water to more people than the entire population of Sweden! They claim that currently 90% of households in South Africa have access to water. The poor also benefit from free basic water.

For the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who promise piped water into every household, this is not good enough. The EFF state that water will be free to the poor and elderly.

Most local authorities buy bulk water and manage its treatment and distribution. The price you pay is only partly based on how much it costs to deliver water to you. As with electricity, it’s a political decision, based on how much revenue the local authority needs to earn, and to what extent it is prepared to subsidise the careful consumption of small-volume users with punitive charges levied to wasteful large-volume users.

Households also ultimately pay for water they don’t receive – water leaks cost the country an estimated R7 billion a year. It is the municipalities responsibility to fix these leaks, but the national Department of Water and Sanitation plans to assist. The idea is to train 15 000 artisans and plumbers to fix leaking taps in their communities. The programme was officially launched in Port Elizabeth in August 2015 with an initial intake of 3 000 trainees.

Although local authorities are responsible for providing citizens with safe and affordable water, their job is made more difficult if national government does not secure our water resources. For example, large swathes of the Mpumalanga Drakensberg are covered by pine and eucalyptus plantations. Each of these trees soaks up about 25 litres of water per day, the same amount that the Water Act guarantees for each citizen!

National government is also responsible for protecting rivers, wetlands and aquifers from pollution, but the picture does not look very rosy. Acid mine drainage poses an increasing pollution threat. New water use licences are being granted to mining companies at an alarming rate, and with little foresight by government. And, despite the appallingly poor performance of so many wastewater treatment plants, there seems to be little urgency from national government to provide the necessary finance and skills to solve the problem.



According to the United Democratic Movement (UDM) ‘A necessary part of any strategy for saving water is the acknowledgement that South Africa is a water scarce country, thus incentives for conservation, as well as penalties for wastage and pollution must be in place and enforced’.

But the crazy thing is, between 30% and 40% of South Africa’s world-class, treated drinking water is flushed down the toilet. Your local authority is responsible for managing this end of the water use cycle – collecting wastewater, treating it to the legislated standard and releasing it back into the environment.

Sadly, too many local authorities are simply not up to the job, and we’re not booting them out when they mess up. A recent independent survey of sewage treatment in 72 towns found that one-third did not meet effluent specifications. Towns in Mpumalanga performed the worst (of 13 treatment plants tested, only 4 passed).

The ANC is proud of the fact that since 2002 it has increased access to basic sanitation services from 62% to 79%.

On the other hand, the EFF claim that the local government system represents “…the highest form of incompetence, unresponsiveness, inability to provide basic services such as clean water, primary health, sanitation, refuse removal and other important functions within their jurisdiction.” They state that their People Municipality will oversee the abolition of bucket toilets and pit latrines and replace them with a flushing toilet in every household.

The DA argues that people are focusing on the wrong end of the sanitation process. They want to concentrate first on upgrading sewerage works, and then on laying the pipelines to the toilets, to ultimately deliver toilets for all.

Unfortunately, party manifestos are short on practical detail. Providing dignified sanitation for all needs serious investment in skills and infrastructure, and a willingness to explore innovative solutions. Engineering constraints make water-borne sanitation impossible in some areas.

Money is also a consideration. For a population of around 3 million, the City of Cape Town’s investment in water and sanitation infrastructure in 2014/15 was over R895 million. The target for 2015/16 and 2016/17 is R1 273 million and R1 521 million, respectively.

Simply providing every household with a flush toilet will bankrupt local governments and take water away from where it can be used productively. On the other hand, simply ignoring the looming crisis, exacerbated by rapidly growing cities, is to risk violent “poo protests”, sewage spills in the streets and contamination of underground water.

Some questions for your newly-elected councillor:

  • We can’t afford to flush drinking water down the toilet. Do you have a solution to wasting this precious resource?
  • What do you intend to do to radically reduce water leaks in our area
  • How will you work with national and provincial government to provide your constituency with safe and affordable water?
  • Is it good planning to allow households to use as much water as they like, as long as they pay for it?
  • How will you ensure that the sewage works in our area meets effluent specifications?
  • What is your plan to provide dignified sanitation for all?

Back to Introduction

Water & Climate Change - Resources

Water and climate change - an exploration for the concerned and curious (2011) ed. Jessica Wilson, EMG, Cape Town - Hardcopy for R60, or download it in sections -- Main Text (2.1MB), Photo Essay (2.4MB), Guest Essays (380KB)  

Water demand management's shadow side: Tackling inequality and scarcity of water provision in Cape Town (2012) Taryn Pereira and Jessica Wilson, EMG Water & Climate Change Research Series Report 7 (315KB PDF)

The Energy-Water Nexus: Energy demand on water resources (2012) Brenda Martin & Robert Fischer, EMG Water & Climate Change Research Series Report 5 (973KB PDF)

You can't have your gas and drink your water (2012) Liane Greeff, EMG Water & Climate Change Research Series Report 6 (1.3MB PDF)

Drought in Eden: An exploration of municipality responses, community impacts and lesson for water and climate change from the 2009/10 drought in the southern Cape (2010) Taryn Pereira (1.8MB)

Climate Change and Water Services in SA (2009) Jessica Wilson & Taryn Pereira, EMG (500KB)

Climate change mitigation in the water sector: or how to reduce the carbon footprint of water (2009) Taryn Pereira, EMG (1.7MB)

Household Impacts of Water management Devices (2009) Taryn Pereira, EMG (128KB)

Water Handbook for South African activist and decision makers in urban areas (2008), Jessica Wilson EMG (2nd edition)

Straight Talk: To strengthen delivery in the water services sector (2009) Water Dialogues SA Syntheses Report, Ed. Mary Galvin,Water Dialogues SA

The story of an international multistakeholder process (2009) Chapman & Mancini  The Water Dialogues, London

A guide to multistakeholder work (2009) Hilary Colby, The Water Dialogues, London

Thirstyville is not for sale (2003) Illustrated by Carlos Amato, EMG