afrol News - 10 million water cuts after South Africa's water privatisation

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10 million water cuts after South Africa's water privatisation

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Tap water

«Full cost recovery»

Tap water

afrol News, 4 November - South African scientists have documented what organisations have warned about for years; water privatisation in African countries means denying access to safe drinking water to the poor. In South Africa alone, there have been 10 million water cuts since commercialisation started in 1994.

Edward Cottle of the Johannesburg-based Rural Development Services Network today presented a study about the consequences of water privatisation in South Africa at the Copenhagen EU SADC Civil Society Conference. The conclusion is bad news for Africa's millions of poors; with a cementation of the "full cost recovery" approach to water utilities all over Africa, poor households stand less chances of getting access to safe drinking water or may even lose the water access they had.

The reasons for the lowered access to water after privatisation are twofold. First, the "full cost recovery" model means cutting water to those not paying water bills. Property and eviction from resident homes can be part of the legal process to recover debt from customers. Mr Cottle says that "since 1994 over 10 million South Africans have had their water and 2 million South Africans have been evicted from their homes" for not paying their water bills.

Second, tariffs generally increase during the commercialisation phase prior to privatisation, only to increase more after privatisation. The black townships in Fort Beaufort had seen an increase in service charges by 600 percent between 1994 and 1996, the time of privatisation. Similar trends have been noted in most towns and cities were water utilities are being commercialised or privatised.

Other conference delegates added that this limitation of access to clean drinking water had already led to a return to the use of unsafe water sources all over Southern Africa. "A rising consume of sources that contain discharge water are the consequences," studies had shown.

The worst example of the health consequences of less access to clean drinking water in South Africa was given during the outbreak of cholera in year 2000. Mr Cottle told afrol News that there was a direct connection between the installation of prepaid meters and the unprecedented spread of cholera in KwaZuluNatal. Over 120,000 people got infected and 290 people died during the outbreak. Studies showed that in the most affected areas, very many people had returned to the use of unsafe water sources as they could not afford safe water.

- In effect, the prepaid meters are just another way of covering up the large number of poor households that are cut off from water supply, Mr Cottle says. As people disconnect themselves from water services, one could now say that "the responsibility for having access to water has been individualised." Gone are the days of public response and subsidies.

The Free Water Policy implemented by the South African government since July 2001 was not a solution to the growing problem, Mr Cottle said. The scheme's free allocation of 6000 litres of water per household per month "does not even meet basic sanitation requirements," given that the average poor household had eight members. 

Water privatisation was following the same principles of "full cost recovery" - including price hikes and large-scale water disconnections - in all Southern African countries studied. Johannesburg, Maputo and Cape Town were already "firmly committed to privatisation." 

According to information gathered by Mr Cottle, South Africa has a total of 5 privatised programmes making it the biggest in the region. Angola has two planned private ventures, Malawi one, Mauritius one, Mozambique two, Namibia one, Tanzania three planned and Zambia has two privatised ventures. A private operator had however withdrawn from Zimbabwe due to the inability to make profit there.

Pressure was high from all important players to continue the privatisation programmes all over Africa, despite of the negative experiences already known. The "full cost recovery" principle was originally introduced as a World Bank conditions for obtaining credit, and it remains an absolute condition among the Bank, the IMF and recently also aid agencies such as USAID, Britain's DFID, Germany's GTZ and the EU as a donor agency. 

Curiously, water utilities privatisation is still a seldom phenomenon at a world-wide basis, especially in rich countries. Only an estimated 5 percent of the world's water resources are on private hands. Industrialised countries, where the largest private water operators have their headquarters, thus increasingly are pushing for privatisation in developing countries. 

The policy has however even been widely endorsed by African governments, latest as part of the official NEPAD credo. According to Mr Cottle, the "emerging African bourgeoisie" also had shown a growing interest in the scramble for Africa's water. 

Civil society however was mobilising resistance, the conference's delegates confirmed. Phelisa Nkomo, from Jubilee South Africa, said he would fight for "having the right to clean water established as an irrevocable rights principle." Human rights expert Brian Kagoro from Zimbabwe agreed. 

Mr Cottle on the other hand told afrol News "we have yet to see the social explosion" to be produced by the ongoing water disconnections to which poor citizens are victims. In South Africa, trade unions, especially those organising municipal workers, were starting to take action against these privatisations. But there was "not sufficient resistance" from unions yet.

Also in other African countries, resistance to water privatisation is growing. In Ghana, government has been forced to halt its privatisation schemes due to civil society protest, although there now is another try to go ahead. In Tanzania, civil society is mobilising as the consequences of the commercialisation of the Dar es Salaam water utility are getting understood. Privatisation schemes are however under way all over Africa, from Mauritania to São Tomé and Mozambique.

- The policy of cost recovery must be scrapped, Mr Cottle says, addressing the South African and other governments. "The policy of cost recovery has already proven itself to be unworkable especially, in the African context." It was now time again to "prioritise public-sector delivery."

Sources: Copenhagen conference, Mr Cottle and afrol archives

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