The idea of providing a free “lifeline supply” of water to poorer households is compelling, as it incorporates the theory of wealthier water users cross-subsidizing basic use for the poor. However, in South Africa the restrictive definition of a lifeline supply has meant a slip back into the status quo of maintaining inequality. Compounded with the problem of prepaid water meters and other limitation devices, poorer South Africans continue to struggle.
In the lead-up to local government elections in South Africa in 2000, the national government announced there would be a policy of “free basic water” in South Africa, beginning in 2001, to be delivered by municipal authorities and funded, in part, by the national government. The amount allocated was 6kl (6,000 litres) per household per month, based on a calculation of 25 litres per person per day for a household of eight.
As most municipalities were unprepared for this policy (and not consulted) it took several years for it to be widely implemented, with some municipalities today still offering only partial free water. There are also millions of people without access to any water whatsoever who are unable to benefit from the policy, or who use communal taps, which make the allocation of free water difficult.
The free water policy is part of a larger restructuring of water tariffs in South Africa, ostensibly designed to make water pricing more “progressive.” In effect, the free allocation of water is the first price “block,” with consumption after 6kl/month being charged on a rising block tariff basis.
As indicated in the chart below, the stepped tariff structure is free for the first block and rises for set blocks of consumption after that, with higher-end pricing blocks intended to subsidize “free” water, while at the same time acting as a disincentive to over-consumption. (Line A indicates the marginal costs of production.)
In theory, all households receive a free lifeline supply of water, subsidized by rising tariff blocks that penalize wealthier households and act as a demand management tool. In practice, the volume of free water has proved inadequate for most low-income households, forcing them into the second or third block of consumption, often creating higher water bills than these households were charged prior to the introduction of “free” water. This is due in part to the steep rise in tariffs in the second and third block. In some cases, households that consume one drop more than 6kl are also charged for the free block. Households that are unable to afford these payments are effectively forced to cap their consumption at 6kl.
For the most part, the allocation of free water has been universal – largely on the assumption that the cost of means testing would outweigh the savings – but in some municipalities indigent policies have been introduced, leading to divisive social and political decisions over which households are “poor enough” to receive free water.
In cases where households consume more than the free allocation of water, but are not paying for the amounts used above that threshold, municipalities have been introducing devices that stop the flow of water at 6kl, limit the water flow rate to make it impossible to use more than 6kl per month, or simply cut off the water supply altogether.
Because of the political fallout associated with cut-offs and limitation devices, many municipalities have been introducing prepaid water meters that will provide the free allocation of water but stop at this amount if water has not been pre-purchased, effectively offloading the act of disconnection to the household itself.
In conclusion, while free water hints at the Commons by providing many households in South Africa with a lifeline supply of water, it must be seen as part of a larger package of water commodification, including the introduction of harsh systems of cost recovery and enforcement that still tend to benefit upper-income households and industry at the expense of low-income households.
- What forms of participatory consultation and management can ensure that “progressive” water pricing schemes are actually progressive?
- Should water justice embrace forms of cost recovery? If so, how can we use cross-subsidization to tax the largest users, avoid further excluding the poor, and avoid reinforcing elite and corporate advantages?
- How do we fight the water commodifcation so that water is not seen as simply one more product to be bought and sold?
- How do we guarantee nature her fair share for ecosystem survival?
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