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What the ‘universal’ water access lie taught us about broadband

South Africa’s 2011 census painted a bright picture of water access in South Africa: 91.3% of South African households had access to piped water. That marked significant progress from the 2001 Census, which showed 84.5% with access.

But lurking behind those 2011 numbers was a harsher reality: 73.4% of households had "Piped water inside dwelling/yard"  and 17.9% had "piped water outside yard". Which means 26.7%, or more than a quarter of South Africans did not really have "household" access.

This is so reminiscent of the absurd broadband policy framework issued from the offices of bygone ministers of communication, the parallels cannot go unmentioned. General Siphiwe Nyanda set the wheels in motionless motion in 2010 when he issued a broadband policy framework that set a target of universal broadband access in South Africa by 2020. 

The definitions contained within the framework remained in place under Dina Pule: universal access meant 15% of households must be within 2km of a broadband access point, with broadband defined as speeds of 256Kbps or more.

In other words, the lowest form of broadband on South Africa’s mobile networks, EDGE, which can theoretically go up to 384Kbps, would qualify for universal broadband. Considering that Vodacom alone covers more than 81% of the population with its 3G network, that means we already had universal access years ago. 

It’s obvious what was happening there: by setting the targets so low that they had already been met, and hoping that no one would notice the devil lurking in the definitions, the intention was that the framework would be a resounding success without any additional effort.

And so it is with water: by defining water access as piped water within walking distance of a dwelling, you could magically show that nine out of ten dwellings had access to piped water! 

No wonder government says there is no crisis in water provision. No wonder corrupt councillors can give fraudulent tenders to their friends and family to deliver water in tankers to "access points" in villages, and describe that as service delivery.

We are fortunate that broadband policy no longer suffers under the same guarantee of failure.

The new minister of communications, Yunus Carrim, has set real targets.

  • By 2016, 50% of South Africa’s population must have access to the Internet at a minimum speed of 5 Mbps.
  • By 2020, 90% of South Africans must have access at a minimum speed of 5 Mbps, with 50% of the population having 100 Mbps access.
  • By 2030, 100% of South Africans must have access at a minimum speed of 10 Mbps, with 80% of the population having 100 Mbps speeds.

There is more, with government and health facilities having even faster access. But the message is clear: this is no low-hanging fruit. This is no attempt at service sleight-of-hand.

The same kinds of targets, applied to water access, would end the national disgrace that sees 30,2% of South African households still relying on pit toilets and bucket toilets. There is a vast gap between that statistic and the one that shows a "mere" 8.8% of South Africans don't have access to piped water.

Perhaps minister Carrim, a former academic, should pop over to the department of water affairs to give them a crash course in access definitions. –

Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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