Media: Jo’burg water policy discriminatory, court told

3 09 2009

JENNI O’GRADY
Sep 02 2009 14:45 – M&G

The City of Johannesburg’s policy of not offering water on credit to residents of Phiri, Soweto, as it does elsewhere in the city, is discriminatory, the Constitutional Court heard on Wednesday.

“I accept that the problem [of non-payment] requires a solution, but why did it differ from the solution that applied in white Johannesburg?” asked advocate Wim Trengove, arguing for a group of Phiri residents in a case about the lawfulness of prepaid water meters.
Trengove said it was wrong that the city had a different policy for different parts of the city on the assumption that some people can be trusted with credit, and others not.

It would be outrageous to suggest that everybody in Phiri, where the prepaid water meter plan was first introduced by the city in a bid to overcome non-payment, did not pay their bills, he said.

“The worst payers are government institutions and yet they are supplied water on credit.”

Justice Kate O’Regan pointed out that between one-quarter to one-third of the city’s water was purchased by Soweto residents, with only 1% of users paying for it.

But Trengove said if someone in Parktown was having a difficult month, they were not cut off automatically in the “soft” water supply option.

Earlier he had said residents in more affluent areas had the protection of various processes before they were cut off.

The Phiri residents did not have that option with their prepaid meters. They were warned when the meter was running out of money and could visit a social worker for an indulgence, but this system did not always work, he submitted.

CONTINUES BELOW

So the residents of Phiri had to deal with the “hard” option of having their water cut off straight away when the meter ran out of credit.

They should at least be given the choice of whether they want to use the credit option.

The city had the legal right to choose which water supply system it introduced, but the prepaid meter option does not comply with the Water Services Act requirement that a user go through various processes before being cut off.

He said he was not arguing that credit was a better option than prepaid.

“I am saying that if credit is allowed in Parktown it must also be allowed in Phiri.

“If they still abuse the system and don’t pay, then cut them off as you would to white people in Johannesburg.”

The city had also not shown it had consulted the residents on the plan, although there was evidence of a salesperson promoting the water meters.

The court papers indicated that the city had introduced new policies on water access and an expanded social package programme on July 1 this year, which extended further help to the poor.

Under this policy, those on the highest band of the city’s poverty index would receive 50 litres of free basic water per day.

But, said Trengove, none of this was in place when the court action was first launched, and since the new policy was only introduced recently, it was not clear whether it just meant that “a ribbon was cut and a trumpet was blown”.

Minimum recommended standard
He said in greater Johannesburg there were an average of 2,6 dwellings on each stand, accommodating an average 10 people a stand.

The more densely populated Phiri would have more people living on each stand and the current free allowance of six kilolitres per stand per month was inadequate and should be raised to at least 15 kilolitres per stand to give the statistical 10 people per stand at least 50 litres of water per person per day.

This was a World Health Organisation minimum recommended standard for homes with flush toilets.

Justice Sandile Ngcobo commented that one of the applicants said she runs out of her free water allowance about halfway through the month.

The increase could be funded through the city’s proposed removal of the free six kilolitres of water to households that can afford water and its transferral to the poor who need a higher free water allowance, said Trengove.

He acknowledged that the city had an indigency register, but said many people found it demeaning to have to register that they are poor and so did not always take this option for getting more free water.

O’Regan suggested it would be difficult to determine exactly who should have free water taken away from them, and whether this could only be done through the legislature.

She also wanted to know whether giving more free water would impact on the city’s moves to deal with the 105 000 households that did not have piped water within 200m of their house.

Trengove said nobody would lose money as the city’s water utility was making a profit.

“Johannesburg Water makes a profit on water,” he said.

Lindiwe Mazibuko, Grace Munyai, Jennifer Makoatsane, Sophia Malekutu and Vusimusi Paki were all residents of Phiri when prepaid meters were implemented over 2003 and 2004.

They were been at the forefront of the application, but Mazibuko has died in the interim.

The City, the Department of Water Affairs and Johannesburg Water were among the respondents. — Sapa

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One response

11 09 2009
Shannon

Thanks for posting an update! I’ve been following the case from Chicago, USA, and there’s not much in the online news. Please blog the decision if you find it out!




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