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Keeping the taps open

A year or so ago, a number of illustrious newspapers, including The New York Times and the London Observer, reported that the water supply of 10-million South Africans had been cut off because of non- payment of water bills. This was based on research by the Canadian-funded Municipal Services Project (MSP).

The papers ignored South African government figures that showed a completely different picture — and did not report the repudiation of the MSP’s research by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC).

This was an extreme example of the phenomenon described by Ferial Haffajee (“Fact, fiction and the new left”) of local social movements projecting themselves on to a world stage by painting a totally distorted picture of South Africa.

The MSP uncritically published incorrect information because it supported this kind of propaganda. It was able to do this because not enough public information was available about access to water supply.

The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry seeks to ensure that all South Africans have equitable access to a safe and reliable water supply.

We want to track who is getting services and under what conditions. As we eradicate the water supply backlog, which we believe is now down to just more than four million people, we will focus not only on the quality of water from the tap, but also on whether the services are reliable.

If we want informed public debate about matters of public policy, we must help to inform it.

When we looked at the methodology used by the MSP, the flaws were obvious. It had asked people whether their water had ever been cut off. It also failed to distinguish between cut-offs for non-payment and interruptions for other reasons — such as burst pipes.

So the department worked with the HSRC to design part of a questionnaire that was used in an annual survey based on a 5 000-household sample representative of the South African population. The HSRC report was completed in January 2004.

Our questions did not assume that all service interruptions were because of cut-offs for non-payment. As a result, a whole new picture emerged: 63% of households reported they suffered no interruptions of water supply for longer than a day during the previous year; 16% were interrupted once or twice; 15% several times.

The highest rate of interruptions was in Limpopo (38%), followed by Mpumalanga (27%). Embarrassingly, these are the provinces where the department still provides services to many rural communities (almost all free) with no deliberate cut-offs.

Of those households whose supply was interrupted, a large majority (78%) either did not know why (39%) or said the temporary cut-offs were because repairs were being made to pipes (also 39%).

Only 7,5% said that they were cut off for non-payment. So 2,5% (7,5% of 33%) or 275 000 of all households attributed interruptions to cut-offs for non-payment in the past year. Contrary to allegations, the poorest communities — households in rural and informal urban settlements — were least affected by cut-offs for non-payment.

Since cut-offs are temporary by nature, we also tried to find out how many people were actually affected by a cut-off for non-payment on a given day. Asked what source they had used the day before the interview, only 2,3% of households had used a different source to normal.

Half of those normally used a free public tap close to their households and most of them had gone to another free source of piped water further than 200m away, suggesting that the problems were because of management, not cut-offs. Only 0,3% of households (30 000) reported being cut off for non-payment and had to get water from other sources.

Thirty-thousand households are still too many, although there will always be people whose abuse of public facilities requires firm measures. But in terms of priorities, at least as much attention must be given to the far larger number who are without water for other reasons, as Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry Buyelwa Sonjica commented in her budget speech recently.

“While more work will be done, the results suggest that the main problem affecting peoples’ water supply is not cut-offs for non-payment, but the ability of service providers to keep the water running. To address these challenges, R265-million is on this year’s budget for local government support and capacity building — and this will be supplemented by generous donor funding.”

The new survey is not the stuff that normally makes headlines. It does not reveal a heartless, neo- liberal state enforcing a “pay-or-die” ideology at the expense of the poor. A better characterisation might be of a well-meaning state struggling to manage rapidly expanding services, constrained by limited management capacity and resources.

The survey, incidentally, confirmed the government’s claim that it has given more than one million people a year access to water supply since 1994, leaving less than five million people to be connected.

It found that 89% of the population used piped water; 66,5% in a house or stand; 14,6% used a tap less than 200m away (within the government’s target-level of service); 8% used sources more than 200m away; while 3,2% used boreholes or water tankers, also considered safe sources.

If there is an indictment of the so-called new left, it is the shoddiness of its research at national level and its failure to engage effectively and constructively at local level, where participative local government planning and budgeting processes are there for the taking. The activists based in academic institutions that claim to focus on public and development management are failing to nurture the new cadre of municipal managers that we need or, judging by the MSP survey, even to teach halfway competent social science research.

It is hard work that does not usually make newspaper headlines. But it would do a great deal more for the lives of the poor than all their activism to date.

Mike Muller is Director General of Water Affairs and Forestry. He is also the author of The Baby Killer (1974), which led to successful campaigns against Nestlé and other baby-food-makers for their harmful promotions of breast-milk substitutes; Tobacco and the Third World: Tomorrow’s Epidemic (1978), which provided a focus for ongoing anti-smoking campaigns in developing countries; and The Health of Nations (1982), which outlined the dynamics of the multinational pharmaceutical industry for the global health movement. He attributes the impact of his reports to solid, accurate research

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