/ 30 April 2008

Court finds prepaid water meters unconstitutional

Forcibly installing prepayment water meters was ruled to be unconstitutional by the Johannesburg High Court, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (Cals) said on Wednesday.

Stuart Wilson, spokesperson and researcher for Cals, which is based at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the meters were found to infringe the constitutional rights of people to have access to sufficient water.

The high court increased the free basic water supply from 25 litres per person per day to 50 litres per person per day in Phiri in Soweto, Wilson said.

The City of Johannesburg was further directed to give the residents of Phiri the option of an ordinary credit metered water supply.

This judgement was historic because it was the first judgement in which the constitutional right to water was explicitly raised, Wilson said.

Judge MP Toska said: ”Twenty-five litres per person a day is insufficient for the residents of Phiri”, whom he described as ”poor, uneducated, elderly, sick, ravaged by HIV/Aids and reliant on state pensions and grants”.

Toska found that increasing the free basic water supply would not put significant strain on the city’s water and financial resources, especially if free basic water already supplied to rich households was redistributed to the poor.

Wilson said: ”The judgment speaks volumes about the city’s approach to the poor and the vulnerable. A serious rethink of the city’s approach to poverty must now take place.”

Cals director Jackie Dugard said: ”This judgement is not only a victory for them [Cals’s clients], but for all poor South Africans. Judge Tsoka has shown that socioeconomic rights have teeth.”

”His judgement shows a careful and sensitive understanding of the law, the city’s obligations, but above all our clients’ lives.”

Prepayment meters automatically disconnect a user’s water supply after a free basic amount has been consumed, unless the user can afford to ”top-up” the free basic amount with his or her own money.

The basic supply estimate of 25 litres per person per day was based on 6 000 litres per household per month assuming a family of eight, Dugard said.

Thus, in households larger than eight, an individual would get less than 25 litres a day.

The application was brought by the Coalition against Water Privatisation (CAWP) on behalf of residents of Phiri in Soweto, its spokesperson, Patrick Sindane, said.

”We are happy with the just decision, which respected the Constitution and water as a right and found in favour of the poor,” said Sindane.

CAWP would spread the message of the ruling and ensure that Johannesburg Water respected the court’s decision, promising mass action if it failed to respect the ruling, Sindane said. — Sapa