By David McDonald

Last year the Municipal Services Project (MSP) released a report which stated that up to 10 million South Africans had experienced water cutoffs due to non-payment of water bills.

We linked these cutoffs to the policies of cost recovery and published the report in a book, along with qualitative case studies and theoretical chapters on the government's rationale for cost recovery. This research has received considerable media attention in South Africa and internationally, most recently in the New York Times.

It was the coverage in the New York Times that appears to have prompted Ronnie Kasrils, the minister of water affairs and forestry, to claim in parliament and in the Sunday Independent that the MSP "considerably overestimated" the number of cutoffs. Kasrils went on to demand that we retract our claims on the number of cutoffs and called us "phoney revolutionaries" for "misleading working people". This public and bombastic outburst does nothing to alter our original position on the matter, but it does demand a reply.

First, the statistics. The 10 million figure was taken from a representative national survey of approximately 2 500 people in July 2001. Conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), in collaboration with the MSP, one of the questions we asked was whether interviewees had ever experienced water cutoffs due to non-payment of bills. Thirteen percent of respondents said yes.

Water cutoffs affect the entire household, however, and since large, low-income households are most likely to be affected, we extrapolated the data to get a more realistic picture of the number of people affected by disconnections. This methodology was clearly explained in our report and has been available to the department of water affairs and forestry (DWAF) for over a year. At no point has the DWAF asked us to discuss or explain these statistics.

We did not release the 10 million figure lightly. We noted at the time that the statistics were "startling". And indeed they are, challenging an important record of water infrastructure extension in South Africa.

Furthermore, it was not just the HSRC data that we relied on. Statistics collected by the department of provincial and local government (DPLG) showed 133 456 water disconnections in the last quarter of 2001. This translates to a (conservative) estimate of 500 000 people affected by water disconnections over a three-month period. At this rate, it does not take long to reach the order of magnitude that we indicate in our study.

Nor was it just water that we were interested in. The HSRC survey showed a similar number of people had experienced electricity cutoffs, and the DPLG data showed that 256 325 electricity disconnections had taken place in the last three months of 2001 (affecting about a million people).

Telephones were also in the news at the time, with Telkom reporting that it had disconnected 40 percent of the 2,1 million phone lines it had delivered over the previous four years.

We also conducted qualitative case studies on service disconnections, detailing the social, economic, health and environmental devastation that service cutoffs create. These case studies captured the very palpable anger expressed by pensioners, workers and unemployed youth alike, thousands of whom were taking to the streets to protest against what they saw as cold-hearted and unfair cutoff practices.

Is there room for improvement in our data analysis and collection? Absolutely. As we made clear in the book, this was a first attempt to cover a complex and multifaceted problem. We intend to continue with this work and to share our findings with policymakers and the public.

This leads to my second point. Despite his bluster, Kasrils has nothing substantive to offer in return. If, as the DWAF admits, water cutoffs remain a "serious matter of concern" why has the department never researched the phenomenon itself?

Our report remains the only national, publicly available data on disconnections. The DPLG statistics referred to above have never been released to the public (they were leaked to us). Repeated requests by researchers to obtain this data have been ignored.

It is morally reprehensible that the DWAF and other government agencies have not researched the cutoff situation themselves and shared this information with the public. Apparently they prefer to attack academics whose data does not fit their rosy picture of service delivery than do the difficult work of research themselves.

Sadly, the cutoff saga continues, and the new white paper on water services makes it clear that cost recovery remains at the heart of the government's water delivery strategy. Bill defaulters will continue to face the wrath of budget-conscious bureaucrats.

"Free services" are just part of the cost recovery continuum. Once the meagre supply of free water is consumed, water flows will be restricted or cut off if not paid for, despite the fact that millions of low-income households cannot afford to pay for the water they need.

The city of Durban, the first to introduce free water, is still cutting off as many as a thousand households a day. All of this is being done in the name of balancing budgets, teaching people to respect the "true" (financial) value of water, and preparing for the further commercialisation of water systems by weeding out "chronic debtors".

In the rough and tumble world of South African politics it is not surprising that our research has come under attack in this way. But the disconnections debate is too important to be left to a war of words between politicians and academics. We therefore invite the DWAF to work with us to investigate these critical service delivery matters to move the debate forward in a more constructive manner.

  • David McDonald is the co-director of the Municipal Services Project