Are water services affordable in South Africa?

PEERC’s Associate Professor Johane Dikgang took part in a Water Research Commission (WRC) webinar on just this topic recently. He had some strong words to say on the subject.

In Resolution 64/292, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognised the right of every human being to have access to water and sanitation (referred to as water services). A critical component of access to water is affordability.

Households connected to municipal water systems in South Africa are likely to see rising water bills over the years to come, due to rising costs of raw water supply and an increase in municipal water tariffs. In a country where more than half of the population is classified as poor, this raises concerns about the affordability of water.

The Water Research Commission (WRC)’s mission is to be a global water knowledge node, promoting highly informed water decision-making through science and technology. To this end, they regularly hold webinars on relevant issues; and there can be no issue more relevant than that of the affordability of water in South Africa, the subject of the WRC’s latest webinar held on 1 September 2020. Bringing aspects of this topic to the table along with Prof Dikgang were Dhesigen Naidoo, of the WRC; Kim Walsh, of Palmer Development Group; Hameda Deedat of NALEDI, the National Labour and Economic Development Institute; and Misaveni Ngobeni of the National Treasury.

The hard facts

Prof Dikgang, Director of the Public & Environmental Economics Research Centre (PEERC) based at the School of Economics at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), titled his section of the webinar ‘The People’s Perspective – Choice, or No Choice?’ He laid out some of the obstacles that South Africans face in terms of access to water.

“Municipalities in this country are buckling, because of the state of the water infrastructure; but they are also under-collecting – for a number of reasons, but one of the main ones is low tariffs. We need tariffs that are lucrative to municipalities, but at the same time affordable to all South Africans. Among other issues, the Department of Water and Sanitation guidelines in this regard are ambiguous; and the existing tariff structure is based on assumptions rather than scientific evidence.”

Prof Dikgang took his audience through a number of steps that need to be taken to improve the situation. He concluded: “As long as we don’t have data – and reliable data – we will continue to struggle to do very basic work. So water data management is very important. And this is before we look at the impact of climate change…”

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