City of Johannesburg’s proposed water tariff increases and shifts in free basic water allowance escalates the war on the poor

Wednesday 26 March 2008 by Ahmed

The shock headline in The Star, that the City of Joburg is doing away with its Free Basic Water (FBW) policy, is not as abrupt as the newspaper proclaims. Tariff hikes for basic services hit the poor hardest and the 85% increase in the price of water announced by the Monday (’Family Day’) edition would certainly necessitate ’illegal’ connections for poor households.

Enquiries to the office of the mayor in response to The Star’s article have shown, however, that the plug hasn’t been entirely pulled on Free Water. FBW will still be provided, but the disciplinary klap water users will receive on exceeding the allocation has been intensified into an unrestrained hiding. What the story confirms more than anything else is that the commodification of water has indeed made water users vulnerable to arbitrary increments.

The ‘clarification’ provided by the City of Johannesburg reveals that the tariff increases are to take effect on the 1st of July after a ‘public consultation’ process which is supposed to be open to public comment. While the APF and the Coalition Against Water Privatisation have not received any information or been contacted about the proposals, they can only invite the escalation of struggle for access to basic resources by the poor. According to our information, all Johannesburg households will get 10 kilolitre FBW per household per month but, unlike the current 6kl FBW allocation, this will fall away if you use more than 10kl. If you use 11kl or more it will be as though there was no FBW at all and you will be paying at the rate of R2.50 for every kl from 0 up to 6kl, and R4.40 per kl from 6kl to 10kl. For every kilolitre from 10kl to 15kl you’ll pay R5.90, and so on in stepped tariffs.

The indications are that poor households will still be induced to accept prepaid meters under the new tariff regime. The Star reported that tariffs charged to households using a prepaid meter will be lower than those tariffs applied to credit-metered consumption. Accordingly, R3.40 will be charged per kilolitre in the 7-10kl range for prepaid water users, and R4.00 per kilolitre consumed in the 11kl-15kl range. If The Star’s report is accurate on differential tariffs for prepaid and credit meters, the FBW policy will become all the more a cynical ploy to get poor users to cut their consumption. Research conducted by the APF in Phiri in Soweto in 2006 after prepaid meters were introduced showed that each household consumed, on average, between 8.7 and 15.3 kilolitres of water per month. The pressure to limit consumption to the 10kl threshold, therefore, will become stricter and will confirm secondary findings of the research that water users will flush the toilet less, bath more seldom and increase stress in the household.

To soften the blow for poor households, the City claims that there will be a revamped (expanded and better publicised) indigency register to accompany the increased tariffs. Not only is the present system hopelessly inadequate and inaccessible (if ever proof was needed then one only has to look at the less than 100 000 poor households that are presently on the register, out of a total of 500 000 identified indigent households in Johannesburg), but the humiliating, Dickensian means-testing that goes along with registering as an indigent requires that the poor - i.e. those least able to do so - register themselves. Despite the City’s plan for a big publicity campaign, there are no guarantees that the changes to the registration process will be made before the proposed changes to the FBW policy and tariff increases. The registration of indigent households is only flimsy cover for the City’s unwillingness to do what they know they should be doing - the provision of adequate and accessible free basic services to the poor.

The proposed changes in the City of Johannesburg’s water policy comes as little surprise to the APF and CAWP, given that the municipality - since the adoption of iGoli 2002 - went about corporatising City management. Johannesburg Water, City Power and Pickitup - all of which are now run as municipal business entities regulated, predominately, by their profitability. >From the onset, in 2000, of the neo-liberal Igoli 2002, the APF has mobilised affected communities against the privatization (read also: corporatisation/commodification) of basic services. The latest tariff hikes and changes in FBW water policy proposed by the City are only the latest salvo in the war against the poor. We live in a context where large sections of poor communities in Johannesburg are dependant on government grants and where huge numbers remain unemployed. These latest tariff increases and changes in the FBW water policy overlook these harsh realities and measure need according to profitability.

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