Water wars move to Cape

In the same week that the Johannesburg High Court declared prepaid water meters to be ”unconstitutional and unlawful”, the City of Cape Town indicated it intends to roll out more than 20 000 water meters within the next year.

Last week Judge Moroa Tsoka found the City of Johannesburg’s imposition of meters that cut off residents’ water supplies once they reach the free basic monthly limit to be ”unlawful and unreasonable”.

The applicants in Mazibuko v City of Johannesburg, a group of low-income residents from Phiri, Soweto, argued that six kilolitres per household a month — the free basic amount — was insufficient. They said they often went for as long as two weeks each month without water, which is bad for hygiene and health. They also said that the meters had been foisted on them without consultation.

”To expect the applicants to restrict their water usage, to compromise their health by limiting the number of toilet flushes to save water is to deny them the rights to health and to lead a dignified lifestyle,” said Tsoka in the judgement. He criticised the city’s Operation Gcin’amanzi campaign, in which the public was consulted on installation of meters, as ”more of a publicity stunt”.

The judge also slammed the installation of prepaid meters in poor neighbourhoods: ”I am unable to understand why this credit-control measure is suitable only in the historically poor black areas and not the historically rich white areas.”

The judge ruled that the free basic limit be doubled to 50 litres per person a day or 12 kilolitres a month, based on an estimate of eight people per household.

He also ordered the City of Johannesburg to stop installing meters. Those already in place will continue to operate until the legal process is concluded. The city plans to appeal against the judgement.

But Sipho Mosai, director of water and sanitation for the City of Cape Town, said its ”water management devices” are not prepaid meters.

He says the devices — 7 500 of which have already been installed — cut water off each day once the free daily limit was reached. Residents can then phone the municipality and apply for more water. ”You don’t pay for the water before you get it, you get it on credit,” said Mosai. He said the free water limit in Cape Town was increased to 10 kilolitres per household a month.

The programme is designed to make residents more aware of their water usage and residents in Cape Town can choose whether to have one installed in their homes. Those who do are eligible for incentives such as free repair of all pipe damage and leaks in the home. Poor residents who agree to the installation of the devices and pay their bills regularly for six months can apply to have all previous water and sanitation debts written off.

Mosai said R55-million has been written off through this scheme and that the incentives and installation of meters will take place mostly in poor areas. ”The city is prioritising installation at high-consumption properties — such properties are often occupied by poor families,” he said.

However, Mosai said the programme is not available only to poor households and the city encourages all residents to install meters. ”I have one myself,” he said.

This week the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) announced it would use the Mazibuko judgement as a basis for legal action against the City of Cape Town. ”We realise that Cape Town has introduced a similar system to the one in Phiri. Whatever arguments they are advancing, it does not change the fundamental problem, which is the limitation of the people’s right for access to water,” said Samwu secretary general Mthandeki Nhlapo.

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Warren Foster
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