Consumers get a whipping

2018-06-14 06:00

EVERY South African is fully aware that water is a scarce and limited resource. The recent drought that gripped provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal for three years has also made all of us think twice about water conservation.

However, I don’t think either of those reasons could be used to justify the high water tariff hikes that municipalities plan to impose on residents and businesses come July.

We live in a country where access to clean drinking water is supposedly a right and of course with every right comes a responsibility, but how can we say we are on the right democratic path when something that is an essential basic need is slowly becoming unaffordable?

I’m of the view that even those who are paying for water will soon resort to alternative means of getting this precious liquid, such as harvesting rain water. This will result in municipalities losing some of the revenue that they desperately need to collect in order to stay afloat.

When the United Nations recognised access to clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right there was no mention of the six kilolitres per household per month that we see in South Africa, because water is life.

You’d think that after more that two decades of democracy, water should be free of charge, not only to increase access for the poverty-stricken communities but also to stimulate investment in order to facilitate economic growth.

The ANC-led government has declared 2018 as the year of renewal and hope, but frankly I think it should be called the year of ripping every cent from the working class because everything is going up.

Inflation sits at just above five percent and the recent VAT increase has made everything expensive. Tomorrow’s 82c fuel hike will also likely see many things, including food and public transport, going up. Now on top of everything else, people have to pay more for water.

I was outraged when Msunduzi approved its budget with a 13,08% water tariff hike but my lower jaw literally hit the ground when I found out that those living in the Midlands will be paying between 21% and 45% to the uMgungundlovu District. The eThekwini Metro has also projected a 15% hike for domestic customers and 15,5% for business.

A colleague of mine recently asked me why there is such a huge difference between these because they are all supplied by Umgeni Water. I tried to explain to her that uMgungundlovu District is too dependent on government grants for a municipality that aspires to become a metro. Its only trade services are water and sanitation, so in order to collect a decent revenue it has to capitalise on every litre that is sold to customers without the municipality having to be forced to subsidise the treatment and distribution of water.

Msunduzi might be having financial challenges but it has decided not to impose a cost-reflective tariff on its customers so will be charging customers what it will be paying to Umgeni.

I don’t know how the municipality is going to pay for treating and distributing water but I’m sure its finance team has a plan because it is supporting the City’s application to Umgeni to reduce the tariff to six percent.

I’m not sure how eThekwini calculated its proposed tariff but I believe it has to do with the number of customers who are actually paying for services, and making a deliberate effort to invest in the upgrading and maintaining of infrastructure.

The reality is that our municipalities are losing millions of litres of water annually and most of this is due to ageing infrastructure. All of them will admit that it needs to be replaced but as with everything else in life, actions speak louder than words. Mayors keep singing the same song of ageing infrastructure every year when the auditor-general points at water and electricity as being the reasons their municipalities are not collecting enough revenue.

It is also particularly annoying to paying customers when programmes that should be given priority, such as a meter audit, are put on a back burner because there is no funding available.

The water that is not leaking out somewhere is being “stolen” by customers who are not being billed per consumption.

There are meters that are not working and the municipalities don’t know about that because they don’t even know all their customers. There are also meters that have been manipulated but no one knows because they are not being read and municipalities are happy to continue estimating.

I guess the Zulu proverb “kushaywa edonsayo” (The lead bull gets whipped the most) best describes what is happening. Those who actually pay are being punished for losses to ageing infrastructure, while the defaulters, the thieves and those who municipalities either do not bill or have been put on a flat rate, are having an easy ride.

• Nokuthula Ntuli is a reporter at The Witness.

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