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Access to water and sanitation in South Africa: A renewed call for more action

Access to water and sanitation in South Africa: A renewed call for more action

While the main discourse in accessing basic services such as water and sanitation focuses on universal access, in reality such access – as highlighted so starkly as the country attempts to halt the spread of the coronavirus – is not equitable.

Access to such services is not equitable and has been evident by ongoing community protests and a recent Supreme Court of Appeal judgment which compensated a family for the loss of their child when his school pit latrine toilet collapsed and he fell in and died. 

However, in the face of Covid-19, the unequal access to safe water, sanitation and adequate hygiene could be a key factor in preventing the so-called flattening of the curve. To this end the government has indicated its intention to supply up to 2,000 communities with water. 

The question of access to water and sanitation is historically rooted in the apartheid legacy which is perpetuated by the fact that the debate around the provision of such services has traditionally focused on access numbers that largely ignore the hidden complexities of how the services are delivered to communities and how the services are perceived. As a result, the political leadership base their achievements of service delivery by emphasising the number of people or households connected to infrastructure, but do not take into account the kind or quality of services that are being delivered.

In order to eradicate the gaps in the provision of water and sanitation services, it is critical to understand the past and current states of affairs. For water and sanitation, as is the case with the provision of many other basic services, the available statistics generally focus on headline numbers. This has limitations as it does not give the full picture. Unpacking the various dimensions of access can reveal a more complex and challenging picture. 

A recent study conducted by Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS) which uses mostly the Community Survey 2016 data from Statistics South Africa delves deeper in unpacking the different shades of access, combining both the extent of access and the quality thereof. 

In 2016, there were about 16.9 million households in the country, of which about 15.7 million (93%) households used an improved water source:

The most improved water source was piped water inside the house with about 7.5 million (44%) households having such access, and about 5.1 million (30%) households have piped water inside their yards.

The study also found that about 13.5 million (80%) households used an improved sanitation facility with about 10.3 million (61%) households having flush toilets connected to the public sewer (the most commonly improved sanitation facility); and about 2.1 million (12%) households have pit latrines with ventilation pipes. Finally, 0.4 million (2%) households did not use any sanitation facility.

While these figures on access are very high and commendable, they do not take into account the quality of the access, hence the need for a multidimensional view on access to the services. 

For water services, four dimensions were used to determine overall access such as: type of water source, distance, interruption of service, and rating/perception. The analysis points to the following:

  • While about 15.7 million (93%) households in the country used an improved water source, only 7.3 million (43%) households had their access to water services good across all dimensions;
  • About 4.3 million (26%) households had access but needed some improvement;
  • About 3.9 million (23%) households had services but faced significant challenges; and
  • Households with backlogs, who were using unimproved water sources amounted to 1.2 million (7%).

For sanitation services, four dimensions were used to determine overall access: namely type of sanitation facility, location, interruption of service, rating/perception. The analysis shows the following:

  • While just over 13.5 million (80%) households used an improved sanitation facility, only about 4.3 million (25%) households had services that were good across all dimensions.
  • About 3.6 million (21%) households were served but needed some improvement;
  • About 5.6 million (33%) households were served but facing significant challenges;
  • Households with backlogs, using unimproved sanitation facilities amounted to about 2.7 million (16%); and
  • About 0.4 million (2%) did not have any sanitation facilities.

Access to water and sanitation at a provincial level

This national level picture is also mirrored at the provincial level. 

In terms of water access:

  • Ninety percent and above of the households in seven out of nine provinces used an improved water source, with the exception of KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape which had 88% and 76% respectively.
  • The Western Cape and Gauteng had the highest overall access to water services.
  • In the Western Cape, 99% of the households used improved water sources with the following breakdown: 66% of the households were properly served across all the dimensions, while 24% were served but needed some improvement, and 8% were served but faced significant challenges.
  • In Gauteng, 99% of the households used improved water sources, broken down as: 61% of the households were properly served across all dimensions, while 25% were served but needed some improvement, and 11% were served but faced significant challenges.

Though many of the provinces had a high percentage of households using improved water sources, the analysis shows that the overall access is not good. For instance, in Eastern Cape, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, North West, and Northern Cape, the percentage of households which were served but faced significant challenges were between 24% and 37%, while, in Limpopo, it was 44%. 

The provinces with the highest percentage of households with backlogs that used unimproved water sources were Eastern Cape with 24%, followed by KwaZulu-Natal with 12%, while Limpopo had 10%.

In terms of access to sanitation services:

  • Provinces with the highest access were Western Cape and Gauteng.
  • In the Western Cape, 95% of the household used an improved sanitation facility, while in Gauteng it was 90%, and the lowest was in Limpopo with 53%.
  • A look at the overall access, shows that Western Cape was the only province that had most households (52%) who were properly served across all dimensions, while other provinces ranged between 8% – 32%.
  • Most of the provinces had households who were served but faced significant challenges in the range of 20% – 30%, however Gauteng had the highest with 41%, followed by KwaZulu-Natal with 36%.
  • Backlogs for sanitation were split between backlogs for those with unimproved sources, and those with no sanitation facility.
  • Notable backlogs with unimproved sanitation facilities were present in Limpopo with 41%, followed by Mpumalanga and North West with 30% and 29% respectively.
  • The percentage of households with backlogs which currently do not have any sanitation facility ranged between 1% to 6% across provinces, with the Western Cape having the lowest of 1% while the Eastern Cape had the highest with 6%, followed by the Northern Cape at 5%, with Limpopo and North West at 4%.

Community protests

People without services and even those with services face significant challenges. Thus, a lack of proper access to water and sanitation services is an additional challenge that coalesces with other grievances to trigger protests, often characterised by violence, with far-reaching socio-economic implications at the household, community, and national level. 

Water and sanitation-related protest events countrywide increased from 528 events in 2017 to 737 events in 2018, with all provinces witnessing an increase in both water and sanitation protest events. Generally, there were more water-related protests compared to sanitation-related protests. Gauteng had the most protests for both water and sanitation, while the Western Cape has distinctly more sanitation-related protests compared to water-related protests. 

Sector challenges and policy options

Overall, the key challenges in the sector occur due to: inadequacy of the services as some municipalities struggle to provide services; dysfunctionality of infrastructure due to lack of proper maintenance (and includes a number of factors including corruption); inappropriateness of the infrastructure (e.g. the scenario of having the flush toilet as the most common type of toilet in the face of water scarcity, which is worsened by climate change); and backlogs as moving targets due to demand that keeps growing. Backlogs grow due to population growth, the increase in the number of households, the expansion of settlements (particularly informal settlements), and the breakdown of infrastructure.

Tackling these requires a combination of solutions that include improved management of municipalities, operation and maintenance of infrastructure, appropriate technological options, and stakeholder buy-in and behaviour change. Water-efficient/saving technological options, such as next-generation sanitation, need to be widely promoted and adopted. There is a need to be proactive and continuously improve on asset management so that all the infrastructure is well protected, operated, repaired, and maintained. In addition, a comprehensive monitoring and evaluation programme is required to inform and alert relevant stakeholders on areas that need attention. For a problem not identified and addressed can only get worse.

To avoid a “one step forward, two steps backwards” scenario which would erode gains that have already been made, the situation demands renewed effort, coordination and collaboration by various stakeholders (policymakers, municipalities, researchers, entrepreneurs, funders, businesses, and communities). Efforts need to be supported by significant resources targeted towards the unserved as well as paying attention to those already served. Embracing the multidimensional view on access to water and sanitation can act as an early warning system that informs stakeholders on areas that need more attention. This will ensure that communities already facing other hardships have proper access instead of substandard service delivery. This is particularly relevant with the increasing need to prevent the outbreak of waterborne diseases and the spread of new and less known pathogens and diseases such as Covid-19. DM

Shakespear Mudombi (PhD) is Sustainable Growth Economist at the Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS). The full report is available here.

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