Maverick Citizen

MAVERICK CITIZEN Op-ed

‘New’ technology, old deal: Cape Town’s drip system plan will entrench water apartheid

Cape Town’s indigent residents cannot be expected to survive on water trickling out of a tap. Proposing yet another technological fix for the 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 most of its residents. Water needs to be dramatically redistributed if any systemic change is going to take place in this city.

Suraya Scheba is a lecturer in the department of environmental and geographical sciences at the University of Cape Town. Faeza Meyer is a member of the African Water Commons Collective. Koni Benson is a senior lecturer in the department of history at the University of the Western Cape and a research fellow and organiser with the Blue Planet Project. Meera Karunananthan is the director of the Blue Planet Project. Vanessa Farr is based at the University of Cape Town and is a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom Academic Network. Lesley Green is a Professor of Anthropology and the director of Environmental Humanities South at the University of Cape Town.

The City of Cape Town seems to have finally realised — after 15 years of grassroots organising against the dreaded water management device (WMD) — that the system needs to go. However, the proposal merely offers fresh strategies in the form of “new” technological instruments that will deprive people of adequate supplies of water — and does so amid a public health crisis. 

The approach is consistent with the city’s long history of punishing people who cannot pay for water and violates their 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 to account for the collective crises of the past few years, including the drought of 2015-2018, the ongoing and escalating housing crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns. According to a recent city media release, the 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”. 

From July 2021, the city will discontinue existing water management devices and replace them with conventional meters equipped with the latest metering technology to influence 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.

The decision to discontinue the use of the WMDs is both welcome and long overdue. Largely installed in “indigent” and indebted homes, it is designed to restrict water access above the “free basic water” quantity by automatically cutting off water once the daily limit has been reached. Despite the city’s continued efforts to portray it as a significant instrument for sustainable development and responsible water usage over the past 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 is “ufudo”, isiXhosa for tortoise, so named because these devices “hide in their shell and we can’t see what’s going on inside”.

The African Water Commons Collective has been 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. Through community workshops, the collective 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. The collective also documents and shares individual experiences like that of Aunty Marrell in Beacon Valley, who said: “At night I have to scratch ice out of the freezer so I can take my tablets because there is no water.” 

Some faulty meters have been replaced multiple times, leaving families without water each time they await a replacement. In the area of Nooitgedacht, 78-year-old Robert Patrick Classen refused to pay R4,000 for a meter which he argues was installed forcefully under the threat of involving law enforcement. Classen had problems with his meter and after many engagements with the city, contacted the mayoral committee member for water and sanitation, Xanthea Limberg. She instructed the company to resolve the problem. After realising the meter was not fixable, the company replaced it with a free-flow meter and sent Classen a bill for disconnection charges of R349.91. He refused to pay and is therefore prevented from accessing the indigent grant.

These are among the many stories gathered by the collective, showing that the devices are plagued by problems. The daily volume restriction is grossly insufficient and the collective has uncovered a high incidence of technical failures leading to cut-offs and recurrent leaks leading to the allocated daily 350 litres running out quickly. Residents reproach the city for a shoddy consultation process and slow response times to reported problems. 

Discontinuing the WMD alone will do little to solve staggering inequalities in access to water. The city’s focus on this shift is both misleading and disingenuous. 

  • 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 the council”. (The current proposal is 15,000 litres — 15kl — a month.)
  • 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 6kl per household per month. 
  • The current proposal is to leave this disc in place for one year, before removing it and returning the household to its 15kl limit — and starting the monitoring process again. 
  • The water supply of non-indigent households with accounts in arrears for non-payment of municipal-related services that do not settle their account in full or enter into an agreed payment arrangement will be restricted to a trickle flow. 

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 before the WMD and resulted in a protest campaign. The instrument has always been unsustainable and unjust. Why misrepresent it as being used in partnership with people who have already objected to it? This is a case of selective amnesia on the part of the city.

It is almost certain that a large number of households in Cape Town will eventually be placed on flow restrictors under this regime. Many will struggle to restrict their usage — not due to wasting, “mismanagement” or irresponsible use, but for structural reasons.  

The city itself recognises that the present 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, the new restricted water amount fails to account for large household sizes. 

What is particularly galling is that the city is turning its head away from the problem of ageing infrastructure, especially in the peripheral parts of the city, where leaks show up as high water usage. The city offers to assist with “one-off fixing of leaks on the indigent property where this has not been provided previously”, but this fails to address the problem of continuous leaks in service lines to properties. The problem of high bills resulting from leaking pipes has been extensively recorded, along with numerous testimonies from residents about the anxiety they face when hit with bills for water they did not use and cannot pay for. 

The proposed water strategy cruelly overlooks the reality of life for most of the city’s residents who face economic insecurity and struggle to pay for basic water use and existing arrears at a time when Covid-19 has led to more than five million job losses. Rising unemployment has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, with women largely assuming the increased burden of care work of children and the elderly — all of which requires water.  

The city argues that indigent registration is an effective mechanism to address the above vulnerability, but the process is known to be exclusionary, burdensome and complex. The definition of who is indigent is inconsistent across South Africa, which leads to further exclusion. Indigent registers significantly under-represent those in need of services. The implications of this exclusion have worsened since the drought period when access to free basic water became conditional upon indigent registration.

For those who do register as indigent, municipalities have linked grant access — both during the drought and the pandemic — to a requirement that residents accept a WMD. The revised approach will simply result in the same water dispossession through different technological instruments. 

Without an increase in the amount of free basic water allocated, many households will be unable to adhere to either the old or the newly proposed regulations. 

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. 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, in the end, the poor paid significantly more for the drought than the rich. 

Post-1994 municipal governance has municipalities tasked with service provision within austerity-based cost-recovery models. 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 the failure of imagination and empathy of the current political leadership in refusing 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. DM/MC

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All Comments 6

  • As a non-Capetonian it is difficult to follow the story. It contains too much info that only locals may follow. The quantities allocated do not always specify per person or per household. The systems’ functioning is vague. The authors must do better if they want to create sympathy for their cause.

  • What the authors seem to forget is that the population of Cape Town, because it is the most desired city in SA, has shot through the roof. Wave a magic wand, sprout clichés and all will be ok?

  • So what is the solution? SA has a natural shortage of water. Something needs to be done. CT is the only province who is being pro-active in SA. I do not live inCape Town & yes there are challenges & the allocation does seem low. Yes, there are rules for the majority and then deal with the exception.

  • 1. To win a justice fight you need the law on your side. 2. The law doesn’t fight for itself. It needs to be invoked. Therefore, the constitution provides basic rights which need agency. Question. Are there early EIA s and SIA s which provide for water etc in exchange for development? Start there

  • Thanks for the criticism but how do you see water being equitably distributed in a water scarce area in a financially sustainable manner?
    It would be really helpful to see what the alternative proposals are.