“In May 2015 I was using 39,000 Kl [of water] BUT I was billed R350! Now I am using 5,000 KL and my bill is closer to R300! Ten percent of what I used three years ago at the same cost?”
This comment, posted on Facebook in early July, reflects a wider sentiment among Capetonians at the moment: concern over the steep rise in Cape Town’s water and sanitation tariffs over the past few years.
While punitive tariffs introduced in February 2018 were justified as a necessary measure in light of the water crisis, another raft of hikes brought in on 1 July 2018 have caused renewed consternation – given that Day Zero has been taken off the cards until 2020.
“The material conditions that resulted in these exorbitant tariff proposals have changed drastically and we demand the City to follow suit,” read a statement issued by ANC Western Cape provincial secretary Faiez Jacobs on 4 July.
Community organisations have also voiced outrage over the price hikes.
“The only reason the City can get away with charging increased tariffs on water is because it has the monopoly on this necessary basic human right,” Camps Bay & Clifton Ratepayers Association chairman Byron Herbert told Daily Maverick.
“The City uses water as a revenue stream to prop up its budget rather than just covering direct costs relating to the purification and supply of same. Like any company facing a crisis, they should be cutting back on internal and unrelated expenditure, rather than expecting the population to spend more for less just so they can continue with business as usual.”
Sandra Dickson, of action group STOP COCT, told Daily Maverick that the City appeared to have largely ignored the negative response of the public to the proposed increases contained in around 50,000 submissions, though the original hike of 26.96% in the draft budget was reduced to 19.9%.
“Tariff increases should be inflation-linked and consumption-based,” Dickson said.
“The levies which were brought in for water and electricity are now making us pay for upkeep of infrastructure – what are our property taxes used for?”
Daily Maverick put the question to the City of Cape Town: with Day Zero avoided for the foreseeable future, why is it necessary to introduce such high tariffs?
Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson says the matter is to some degree out of the City’s hands.
“Any decision by the City of Cape Town to lower current water restrictions and thus the tariffs associated with them is dependent on national government relaxing the restriction on water releases from the dams,” Neilson told Daily Maverick.
“The City believes that current conditions warrant a consideration of the relaxation of restrictions.”
As things stand, the Department of Water and Sanitation has maintained a reduction of 45% in the amount of water released from provincial dams for use in urban areas of the Western Cape. The department has said that restrictions will only be lifted when dam levels are at 85%. As of 2 July, the average dam level across the Western Cape stood at 41.5%.
But Neilson also notes that extreme times call for extreme measures.
“The tariff increases come on the back of an abnormal climatic event – the worst drought in our recorded history.”
While water tariffs hike would ordinarily be implemented in line with inflation, Neilson says that this year they are “informed by cost recovery considerations”.
University of Cape Town water expert Dr Kevin Winter says that the structure of the new tariffs is significant, because it “separates the cost of water from the distribution system: ie, the service charge for the pipeline”.
This is a necessary step, says Winter.
“What it will do is to secure a regular revenue for the water services and maintenance irrespective of the volume of water use per property. It is crucial to secure a stable consistent income for ensuring the sustainability of Cape Town’s water services in the future,” Winter told Daily Maverick.
He added, however: “If the City is capable of securing sufficient revenue from the pipeline diameter surcharge, then it would make sense to reduce the price of water. The message is that we are not paying for water so much as we are paying for the distribution and treatment cost of water.”
Winter believes that reducing the price of water would not result in a sudden increase in usage.
“Surely we have matured through the crisis?” he asks.
The ANC in the Western Cape has indicated that it intends to challenge the price hikes in court, as well as leading Capetonians in protest marches on the issue.
Judging by the levels of public dissatisfaction on the matter currently, the party may find many willing participants.
“There is huge anger on the ground and action and resistance groups are mushrooming,” says Dickson.
“Municipal elections are years off – however I believe the discontent will show [in the 2019 national and provincial elections] at a municipal level.” DM
"If a man seeks from the good life anything beyond itself, it is not the good life he is seeking" ~ Plotinus