Cape Town’s drip system plan will entrench water apartheid

28 May 2021 | Story Suraya Scheba, Faeza Meyer, Koni Benson, Meera Karunananthan, Vanessa Farr, Lesley Green. Photo UCT News. Read time >10 min.
The researchers wrote that the "water crisis of 2015-2018 was presented as a 'new' crisis for all, misrepresenting “Day Zero” as a novel experience. This was not the case for the city’s low-income residents, they said.
The researchers wrote that the "water crisis of 2015-2018 was presented as a 'new' crisis for all, misrepresenting “Day Zero” as a novel experience. This was not the case for the city’s low-income residents, they said.

While welcoming the City of Cape Town's discontinuation of the “dreaded water management device”, researchers from the University of Cape Town (UCT), along with colleagues from the University of the Western Cape and the African Water Commons Collective, view the proposed approach as “consistent with the city’s long history of punishing people who cannot pay for water and violates their right to water”.

The City seems to have finally realised, after 15 years of grassroots organizing against the dreaded Water Management Device (WMD), that the system needs to go. The bad news is that, upon closer inspection, the proposal merely offers new strategies in the form of ‘new’ technological instruments that will deprive people of adequate supplies of water, and does so in the midst of a public health crisis. The approach is consistent with the city’s long history of punishing people who cannot afford to pay for water, and violates their human right to water under Chapter 2 of the Constitution, as legislated by the Water Services Act 108 of 1997.

The City claims it is reviewing its metering approach in order to account for the collective crises of the last few years, including the drought of 2015-2018, the ongoing and esclating housing crisis, and the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lock-downs. According to a recent city media release, the City argues that its new strategy will “adapt our domestic metering approach to ensure a better balance between financial sustainability and ensuring adequate access to water for our most vulnerable residents”.1

In short, from July 2021 the city will discontinue existing Water Management Devices (WMD), and replace them with conventional meters equipped with the latest metering technology to influence the water management in so-called indigent households. According to the city, this approach requiring residents to “take responsibility for usage”, is part of an effort to treat users as partners.

To begin with, the decision to discontinue the use of the WMD is both welcome and long overdue. Largely installed in ‘indigent’ and indebted homes, the instrument is designed to restrict water access above the ‘Free Basic Water’ (FBW) quantity by automatically cutting off water once the daily limit has been reached. Despite the City’s continued efforts to portray the WMD as a significant instrument for sustainable development and responsible water usage over the last 15 years, the harsh realities of living with the instrument are well documented, earning it the name ‘Weapon of Mass Destruction’ among poor people in the city. Another popular term for these meters is ufudo, isiXhosa for tortoise, so named because these devices ‘hide in their shell and we can’t see what’s going on inside.’2

The African Water Commons Collective (AWCC) has been engaged in documenting the effects of the device. Beginning in 2014, the group of activists has carried out extensive research and community engagement in Cape Town and neighbouring Witzenberg, on the impact of the WMD. Through community workshops the AWCC has mapped household water needs, and recorded the extent to which the restricted allocation of 350 litres per household per day is grossly insufficient, especially in the context of large household sizes, and backyard dwellers. They also document and share individual experiences like that of Aunty Marrell in Beacon Valley, who says: “At night I have to scratch ice out of the freezer so I can take my tablets because there is no water”.

Others have faulty meters that have been replaced multiple times, leaving the family without water each time they await a replacement. The device also contributes to household tensions. In the area of Nooitgedacht, 78-year-old Robert Patrick Classen refused to pay R4000 for a meter which he argues was installed forcefully under the threat of involving law enforcement. Mr Claasen, like many others, consequently had problems with his meter and after many engagements with the city contacted mayco member for Water and sanitation, Xanthea Limberg. She instructed the company to resolve the problem but, after realizing the meter was not fixable, the company replaced it with a free flow meter and proceeded to then send Mr. Classen a bill for disconnection charges of R349,91. He refused to pay these charges, and is therefore prevented from accessing the indigent grant.

These are among the many stories gathered by the AWCC showing that the devices are plagued with problems. To begin with, the daily volume restriction is grossly insufficient and fails to account for the number of household members or the number of households on a single plot. In addition, the AWCC has uncovered a high incidence of technical failures leading to cut-offs and recurrent leaks leading to the allocated 350 litres per day running out quickly. Finally, residents dealing with these challenges reproach the city for a shoddy consultation process, and slow response times when people report problems. Ultimately, the discontinuation of the WMD alone will do little to solve staggering inequalities in access to water. In fact, the city’s focus on this shift is both misleading and disingenuous. The devil is in the detail:

  • The proposal for those who qualify for ‘indigent’ benefits, is that “customers will now be required to keep their monthly water use within a limit approved by Council. (15 000 litres (15kl) a month is the current proposal)”.
  • However, if water usage exceeds the limit for two consecutive months, a warning letter will be sent, after which a flow-restricting disc will be inserted in the meter to limit water supply to a trickle flow of 6 000 litres (6kl) per household per month.
  • The current proposal is to leave this disc in place for one year, before removing it, only to return the household to its 15kl limit, and starting the monitoring process again.
  • In the case of non-indigent households with accounts in arrears for non-payment of municipal-related services, if they do not settle their account in full or enter into an agreed payment arrangement the water supply will be restricted to a trickle flow using a flow-restricting disc.

Therefore, while seeming to acknowledge that previous metering attempts disproportionately favoured financial sustainability over access to water, the revised approach continues to pit the fundamental human right of all residents to water against the city’s fiscal priorities. The main change is the adoption of alternative technological instruments of control. However, the use of the flow restricting discs is not new. Discs were in use prior to the WMD and resulted in a huge protest campaign, ‘ditch the disc’, which saw communities and members of the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) join together in mobilising against the drip system in the first decade of ‘free basic water’ (FBW). The instrument has always been unsustainable and unjust, so why go back to its use, and why misrepresent it as being used in partnership with people who have already objected to it in the past? This is a case of selective amnesia on the part of the city.

Given both the history and the current context of high unemployment and poverty levels, it is almost certain that a large number of households in this city will eventually be placed on flow restrictors under this new proposed regime. It is already well known that many households will struggle to restrict their usage – not due to wasting, ‘mismanagement’ or irresponsible use, but for structural reasons.

Firstly, the City itself recognises that the current housing crisis is driving the growth of backyard dwellings and large household sizes. Backyard dwellings continue to increase in number, having grown 256% from 21 780 in 1996 to 77 630 in 2016. In the years to come, with an estimated 500 000 households requiring additional housing by 2028, the massive shortfall in housing provision, overcrowding, backyarding and informal settlements can only worsen.

While the city may claim that the daily amount of 350l has been increased to an average of 500l per day with the new allocated amount, the new restricted water amount fails to account for large household sizes, or to include extended family and backyard dwellers, who will find it impossible to ‘manage’ their usage within the restricted amount. If they attempt to do so, it can only be at the expense of their health, wellbeing, and lives.

Secondly, and what is particularly galling, is that the City is turning its head away from the recurrent problem of ageing infrastructure, especially in the peripheral parts of the city, where leaks show up as high water usage whose responsibility is supposed to fall to property owners. The City offers to assist with “once-off fixing of leaks on the indigent property where this has not been provided previously”, but this approach fails to address the problem of continuous leaks in service lines to properties which is a widespread and well known crisis. The problem of high bills resulting from leaking pipes has been extensively recorded, along with numerous testimonies from residents about the high levels of anxiety they face when they are hit with bills for water they did not use and cannot pay for. These will continue and drive up recorded usage.

Thirdly, the proposed water strategy cruelly overlooks the reality of life for the majority of the City’s citizens, whom the City prefers to term as ‘customers’. These citizens are faced with economic insecurity and struggle to pay for basic water use and existing arrears at a time when Covid-19 has led to over 5 million job losses in a country with an unemployment rate that was already at 42% before the pandemic began. Studies undertaken in the last year confirm that the pandemic has been devastating for individuals and households. Rising unemployment has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, with women bearing the brunt of job and income losses, and largely assuming the increased burden of care work of children and the elderly- all of which requires water.

Finally, the City argues that indigent registration is an effective mechanism to address the above vulnerability; but the indigent registration process is already well known to be exclusionary for many poor households. As outlined in the research by individuals and institutes, registering has historically proven to be burdensome and complex, presenting “a significant cost to the poor and in instances where individuals are employed in the informal economy [becoming] almost impossible”3 and deterring many from signing on, while the definition of who is indigent is inconsistent across South Africa, which leads to further exclusion. The implication is that indigent registers significantly under-represent those in need of services. The implications of this exclusion have worsened since the drought period when access to FBW became conditional upon indigent registration.

The case of Mr Classen from Nooitgedacht (discussed earlier) is illustrative. His bill for the disconnection of the WMD, prevented him from accessing the indigent grant, despite his status as a pensioner. He explained that, “I sent them the indigent form to get the rebate. A lady phoned me and told me that I can’t get the rebate, that I owe the council. I went to the police station and got an affidavit and sent it with the indigent form but yet they say I can’t get a rebate because I owe the council”. Prior to the drought he would have at least obtained access to FBW, but this is no longer the case.

For those who do manage to jump through the bureaucratic hoops to register as indigent, municipalities have linked grant access – both during the drought and pandemic – to a requirement that residents accept a WMD (with the associated problems we have already outlined). The revised approach will simply result in the same water dispossession through different technological instruments.

In short, we reject the City’s proposal for water control measures that will continue to widen the gap between what is needed and what is provided to communities dealing with rising unemployment, income insecurity, housing precarity, and ageing infrastructure. These new measures are simply a way to get poor and vulnerable citizens on the inhumane drip system once again, in violation of their Constitutional right to water. Without an increase in the amount of ‘free basic water’ (FBW) allocated, many households will be unable to adhere to either the old, or the newly proposed regulations which in essence cut people off from the water they need. Now, more than ever, the importance of water for life cannot be denied.

The water crisis of 2015-2018 was presented as a ‘new’ crisis for all, entirely misrepresenting ‘Day Zero’ as a novel experience. This was not the case for the City’s low-income residents. The crisis they have faced for many years has both gone unacknowledged, and been worsened by ongoing municipal efforts to trade off equity against perceived economic commitments. Despite widespread claims that the crisis of access was successfully resolved during the drought, the restriction measures imposed on the already vulnerable merely intensified their struggle. In the end, the poor paid significantly more for the drought than the rich. In the current moment, the Covid-19 pandemic has only made water access issues worse. As with ‘Day Zero’, the pandemic is being used to justify further anti-poor revisions cloaked in the language of progressive solutions and partnership.

Post-1994 municipal governance has municipalities tasked with service provision within austerity-based cost-recovery models. In this context, fiscal commitments are prioritised over equity and various technical instruments have been mobilised to manage debt and demand management, including WMDs, prepaid meters and once again water restrictors. The proposed continuation of a neoliberal cost-recovery approach will continue to transfer and intensify the burden of access to the household and individual level, most harshly affecting the working class. A State entity cannot be mandated to regulate and restrict water access in a way that actively dehumanises the people of this city. These new measures demonstrate a failure of imagination and empathy for the current political leadership to refuse to provide a socially just budget. We call on this Municipality to remember that we are citizens, not customers, that we have a Constitutional right to adequate water, and that water should be approached as a commons and not a commodity, reserved for those who can afford it.

No-one, especially the poor, can survive with water trickling out of a tap. Proposing yet another technological fix for a problem of poor infrastructure and historic inequality is racist, inhumane, and disingenuous. It can neither advance a partnership between the City’s citizens and its leaders, nor improve the lives of the majority of its residents. Water, like land, needs to be dramatically redistributed if any systemic change is going to take place in this city.

Suraya Scheba – Environmental & Geographical Sciences, University of Cape Town
Faeza Meyer – African Water Commons Collective
Koni Benson – Department of History, University of the Western Cape, and Blue Planet Project Research Fellow
Meera Karunananthan – Director of the Blue Planet Project
Vanessa Farr – University of Cape Town
Lesley Green – Director of Environmental Humanities South, University of Cape Town

1 City of Cape Town, “One Week Left to Comment on Proposal: Revised Approach to Domestic Water Metering,” 26 April 2021

2 Jessica Wilson and Taryn Pereira “Water demand management’s shadow side: Tackling inequality and scarcity of water provision in Cape Town,” Environmental Monitoring Group Water and Climate Change Research Series Report No. 7 (November 2012), p.5

3 SERI, “Turning off the Tap: Discontinuing Universal Access to Free Basic Water in the City of Johannesburg,” (Socio-Economic Research Institute Report, 2018).

This piece is based on our submission on the City of Cape Town’s draft budget for 2021–2022, and focuses on the proposed revised approach to domestic water metering. An abridged version was published in the Daily Maverick, 10 May 2021.

This article first appeared on The Blue Planet Project.

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