South Africa's Neoliberal Water Policies Exacerbate the Effects of Climate Change on the Poor

By Michelle Pressend · 23 Nov 2011

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One of the major threats stemming from climate change is increased water scarcity. 

The South African government’s National Climate Change Response White Paper released in October this year argues, “Based on current projections, South Africa will exceed the limits of economically viable land-based water resources by 2050.” This projection is extremely worrying considering millions of South Africans do not have access to water and sanitation. 

South Africa’s Second Communication to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reveals that in 2006, 3.3 million people still lacked access to the supply of adequate clean water, with another 15.3 million lacking access to basic sanitation services. As part of government’s strategy to alleviate poverty and improve public health, the Free Basic Water Policy of 2001 does make provision for the first six kilolitres (25 litres) of water to be free for all households. However, the report acknowledges that this is widely seen as insufficient to meet basic needs.

In fact the National Climate Change Response White Paper also points out, “Although Government has provided basic water services to an estimated additional nine million people since 1994, they are mostly in urban areas. In many rural areas, lack of reticulated water and sanitation means that people rely on generally poorly managed local resources such as ground water, springs and rivers that are vulnerable to pollution and drought.” 

Despite this acknowledgement, climate change responses with respect to “access to water” tend to ignore the fact that current water policies, informed by the doctrine of neoliberal globalisation, are inadequate for addressing the provision of water for the poor and mitigating the effects of climate change.

Water scarcity as a consequence of globalization is simply not considered in response to the wide array of shocks and stresses perpetuated by climate change. Responses to climate change are often limited to institutional, technical and infrastructural challenges and critical aspects such as the impact and contribution of “water privatisation” and “cost recovery programmes” have not been taken into account. 

This is all very worrying for poor people whose access to water will most definitely be exacerbated by climate change as the water supply decreases (for example, during years of drought), resulting in water prices that will certainly increase due to the implementation of market-friendly, as opposed to human-friendly policies.

Thus, it must be argued that the climate change crisis as it affects the availability of water cannot be addressed without challenging the current principles underpinning the delivery of this precious resource in South Africa.

In our globalised world, water is increasingly viewed as an economic resource – not a public good - to be managed via the market by private companies or public-private partnerships through the development of “water-pricing policies.”

As a result, polices adopted by South Africa after 1994 mean that items such as water, electricity and other social sectors, which were once the exclusive terrain of the public sector are now corporatized and operate on the basis of making a profit.

In a 2006 policy brief written by Stephen Greenberg titled, “The State, Privatisation and the Public Sector on South Africa,” he explains how the South African government has adopted cost reflective pricing and cost recovery policies, which not only affects how water is managed and distributed, but also has a huge impact on access to water and affordability for the poor.

Prior to the establishment of the Water Act of 1997, water boards provided the bulk of water to municipalities. These boards were established on the understanding that the pricing of water was not to yield profit, but was calculated to cover costs only.

However, our post-apartheid government’s water policies have turned out to be punitive for the poor. Privatisation of water services through public-private partnerships, full cost recovery, the “user pays” principle, and the introduction of pre-payment water meters, amongst other developments, have resulted in large price increases in water and sanitation for our poor. 

The Environmental Monitoring Group’s (EMG), an NGO that amongst other things conducts research to provide good public information, produced a publication on Climate Change and Water Services. The EMG publication argues, “[P]eople’s access to water is constrained by irregularity of supply – the taps are there, but no water flows when they are turned on; affordability – water is too expensive; poor quality; technologies that limit supply such as pre-paid water meters; and technical failures – for example meters that randomly shut down and cut off water…” 

EMG also points to some trends unfolding, which need to be challenged. These include more punitive measures taken against those who do not or cannot pay their water bills; more outsourcing of aspects of water and sanitation service provision to private contractors (with less regulation of these contractors) and deeper conflation of debt recovery and water conservation, i.e., restricting water usage for those who cannot afford to pay for it, in the name of water resource conservation.

Cost recovery policies are extremely hazardous for the fair and equitable distribution of public goods, as they hinder municipalities’ ability to introduce ‘rising block’ tariffs such that high-end users of water can pay more. Putting in place demand side management measures to improve water use efficiency is important, as those with wealth (count among them heavy industries with wasteful water usage practises) are currently allowed to use water in highly inefficient ways.

A key concern and barrier for more efficient use of water is that current tariffs do not reflect the scarcity of the resource.

According to economist, Paul Berkowitz, tariffs have 3 purposes: (1) financial sustainability through cross-subsidisation, (2) equitable access through rising block tariffs and (3) environmental sustainability through demand management. He suggests, “A best case scenario for a tariff is one that increases demand management and also increases revenue – i.e. rich users will use less, pay more and municipalities will save money and water.”

Currently policies promoting the privatisation of water and services represent a barrier to the adaptation of water resources because the commodification of this precious and dwindling natural resource will not only increase competition over scarce water resources, but also direct funding to where the most profit can be generated. 

Globally, at the 65th United Nations General Assembly, member states voted unanimously, declaring the human right to “safe and clean drinking water and sanitation.” Locally, the right to water is enshrined in the South African Constitution. 

However, the commodification of water in existing policies contrasts sharply with this notion of water as a human right. We ought to be looking for just and equitable solutions where human rights are fore-grounded in climate change solutions.

Pressend coordinates the Trade Strategy Group (TSG) at the Economic Justice Network and Global Network Africa at the Labour Research Services in Cape Town. She is also an independent socio-political analyst on global issues related to trade, environment and climate change.

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