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Opinionista

Cape Town’s water tariffs are unfair and penalise the poor

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Mark Rountree is a scientist, water resource specialist and accidental politician. He is currently the National Policy Officer for Good: www.forgood.org.za

The City of Cape Town is making a huge profit (‘over-recovery’) from the drought. Cape Town’s residents are paying more for water and some are paying more than others – and it is not who you think.

Last month when the mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, announced his resignation, he criticised his caucus for prioritising affluent neighbourhoods and spoke openly of the forces in the Democratic Alliance (DA) opposed to transformation working to undermine him.

Two years ago in Cape Town, the same issues surfaced during the drought over the costs of water. Patricia de Lille lost that fight and today, using the same amount of water each, residents in lower income areas like Hanover Park and Khayelitsha pay far more per person than residents from affluent areas like Camps Bay.

The drought in Cape Town began in 2015/16 and water restrictions were implemented by the city on 1 January 2016 – a politically brave decision in the months leading up to the local government elections.

The next year, a less than one-in-one-thousand year chance of another extremely low winter rainfall year happened. Dam levels dropped to record lows. Critical water-saving measures, such as pressure reduction of pipes, faster leak repairs and ill-advised desalination plants incurred additional costs for Cape Town’s water department. The income from water sales was already down due to reduced water use and this created a revenue shortfall, risking the ability of water department to sustain water supply and emergency projects.

In late 2017 a temporary drought levy was proposed by city officials as a solution to the revenue shortfall. This temporary levy was to require a small, escalating contribution for homes worth more than R400,000 for the duration of the drought. Higher-value homes had tended to use the most water per household, as before the severe water restrictions, many larger homes used potable city water for garden irrigation and swimming pools etc. Reversing its initial support following negative public feedback, the DA’s executive instructed its city councillors to not support the temporary drought levy because it would “create an undue burden on ratepayers” and some argued that the temporary levy was unfair to higher income households.

In January 2018, the politicians from the DA caucus instead put forward a revised water tariff system. This new tariff system, of exponentially escalating water costs and later, a permanent pipe levy cost, was proposed to replace the temporary drought levy.

An appeal was made to “exempt households who are using less than… 6,000 litres per month” and that the City ensure that larger households would not be unfairly penalised, but councillors Malusi Booi and Mercia Kleinsmith objected to these calls to reduce water charges. Booi said reduced costs were “financially reckless” and Kleinsmith stated that relief for large households was “not feasible” because “hundreds of millions of rands would be lost from the budget which could not be found elsewhere”.

The new higher tariffs were imposed, but researchers now concede that the undermined original temporary levy was “a more sustainable tariff model”. Booi and Kleinsmith’s arguments that the City could not afford to reduce costs were also proven untrue. In March 2019, Moody’s confirmed that high costs had increased water sales revenue to R4.4-billion and “cash generated from operations increased by 13% to R7-billion”.

The City is making a huge profit (“over-recovery”) from the drought. Cape Town’s residents are paying more for water and some are paying more than others – and it is not who you think.

The structure and steep cost increases of the water tariffs are designed to benefit small households. The recommended 100 litres per day water use means a two-person household – the average size in Camps Bay – will pay R51 per person per month for their 6,000l. Above this volume, costs begin to rise exponentially.

In Khayelitsha, Grassy Park and Wesbank, where households have an average of four people, costs per person for the same amount of water per person rise 20%, to R61 per person. In a typical five-person home in Hanover Park, the cost – R73 per person – is almost 50% more than Camps Bay, but average household income is almost 10 times less. If one begins to factor in extended or multiple families, where perhaps a dozen people share one water meter, the cost per person doubles. The water tariff ensures that residents from lower income communities will each pay more for their daily 100l of water than a person from a small family in Camps Bay, even though each person is using the same amount.

Inexplicably, councillors like Booi and Kleinsmith acted to penalise the communities they were elected to protect. They were both immediately promoted within the DA following De Lille’s resignation – and, although dam levels were far higher, they voted to raise water costs again in 2019/20.

The information behind this research has been submitted to the Human Rights Commission. I hope that the SAHRC will instruct the City of Cape Town to ratify a more equitable tariff structure – one that does not discriminate against lower and middle income neighbourhoods.

There is no doubt that we had to save water, and Cape Town rallied together to achieve that. South Africa is indeed stronger together, but to achieve that common strength, we must work together to protect one another from injustice and unfair discrimination. DM

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