The politics of water

20 March 2018 | Story Nadia Krige Photo Supplied Read time 8 min.

Worldwide, an increasing number of cities are facing massive challenges in provisioning water. As urban populations grow – globally and especially in Sub-Saharan Africa – outdated infrastructure is straining as the demand for water services rises. Furthermore, water resources are dwindling because of climatic conditions.

As water is usually approached from a socio-economic and environmental point of view, we often fail to see the political side of this precious resource.

Professor Horman Chitonge from the University of Cape Town’s Centre for African Studies has dedicated part of his academic career to the study of hydro-politics, focusing specifically on Sub-Saharan Africa.

Challenges facing cities in Sub-Saharan Africa

The provision of water in Sub-Saharan Africa is characterised by two major trends. On the one hand, populations are increasing – in many cases rapidly. And on the other, infrastructure is not growing at a commensurate rate.

“Part of my work is to emphasise the importance of expanding infrastructure. In some cities, the infrastructure was laid in the ’60s when these cities were meant to cater for 500,000 people,” Chitonge explains. “Now those cities have grown to 3 million, 4 million, 5 million people and they're using the same infrastructure. It's becoming a huge problem.” 

Chitonge says that up until now governments have been working with a static model that seems to assume that population growth will stabilise at some point. Of course, this is wishful thinking and Chitonge believes that long-term plans should be put into place to develop infrastructure every 15 years or so.

Establishing a funding model

Since water infrastructure is expensive, securing capital investment for these sorts of projects is challenging. In most cities, water services are supposed to pay for themselves through tariffs paid by consumers, but those mostly only cover operation and maintenance costs; they don’t cover the capital expenditure and infrastructure costs. This is essentially where the problem lies.

For this reason, Chitonge says, a suitable funding model for the extension of water infrastructure has to form part of the long-term planning in all cities.

“Whether you borrow from outside the country or from within the financial capital markets, it has to be planned for. Otherwise, you come to a point where you don’t have the money to extend the network,” he explains.

The state of private sector involvement

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the problem of funding for water infrastructure upgrades in many African cities seemed to be momentarily solved with very keen participation by the private sector and the establishment of public–private partnerships.

French water companies, such as Vivendi, started moving into West African cities, such as Dakar in Senegal and Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire. In South Africa, we saw the establishment of public–private partnerships like Umgeni Water Amanzi in KwaZulu-Natal and Rand Water in Gauteng. By the end of the 1990s, a lot of these companies discovered they had over-estimated their returns on investment and a large-scale pull-out from the private sector followed.

Chitonge says there are two major reasons for this. First, the profit projections were over-cooked by the private sector to begin with. Second, as a basic requirement, water is a highly sensitive commodity with a lot of politics surrounding it.

“Increasing a water tariff is not like increasing the price of a pair of shoes. Nobody would make noise if the price of shoes went up. But the moment you touch water, there are political ramifications,” explains Chitonge.

Not able to generate satisfactory profits from water provision, the private sector players sought more lucrative options elsewhere.

In South Africa, there is still some private sector involvement, but these companies are mostly working behind the scenes – buying bulk water from the national government and reselling to municipalities at an agreed rate.   

“In cases like these, you find a balance between the social and the economic, with the private actors foregrounding economic consent and the public provider more concerned with the social and political impact on citizens.”

The situation in Cape Town

One does not have to look very far to understand just how complex provisioning water to an ever-growing city can be. Currently in the midst of an unprecedented water crisis, Cape Town is proving to be a fascinating case study. Although a major drought may be the catalyst, there is a perennial problem that relates to the imbalance between infrastructure and population.

“Water is often take for granted, in the sense that it’s always there. People only realise its importance when there is a crisis.”

From 2000 up until 2017, the population of Cape Town grew by almost 50%; water infrastructure expanded at a much lower rate over the same period.  

“That talks to a longer term plan for the city. Which, for those of us who have been engaging with that plan, we feel that more serious thinking is needed,” says Chitonge.

One good thing that has come out of the city’s water crisis, however, is the fact that people have learned that they can live with less. Since the first set of water restrictions were put in place late in 2016, Cape Town has seen a 57% reduction in water consumption, with some households cutting even more.

“The example of Cape Town is actually amazing,” says Chitonge. “I’ve done work on different African cities, but what has happened here is incredible. Of course, it’s a crisis and we feel this is not comfortable, but it has taught us that we can actually reduce our consumption drastically if we are serious.”

Creating a water-wise world

Most Capetonians have embraced a more water-wise lifestyle out of necessity, but Chitonge believes that this sort of drastic reduction in consumption could be the key to future global water security. Essentially, there’s an onus on people everywhere to start being more water-wise.

“Water is often take for granted, in the sense that it’s always there. People only realise its importance when there is a crisis.”

Chitonge says that policy-makers have the responsibility of passing a message on to citizens that water is a finite resource and that we could all live with less.

Horman Chitonge is an associate professor at the Centre for African Studies based at the University of Cape Town. His research interests include agrarian political economy, hydro-politics, and alternative strategies for economic growth and poverty reduction in Africa.


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