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					Keeping the taps Open – Article by Mr Mike Muller, Director-General of the
Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, in the Mail and Guardian, 25 June 2004

“Shock report reveals that ten million people did not have their water cut off for
non-payment last year ! Municipalities struggle to provide reliable services!”

A year or so ago, a number of illustrious newspapers including the New York Times and
the London Observer reported that the water supply of ten million South Africans had
been cut off for non-payment. This was based on research by the Canadian funded
Municipal Services Project (MSP).

The papers ignored Government figures that showed a completely different picture and
did not report the repudiation of the research by the Human Sciences Research Council
(HSRC), which had originally published it.

This was an extreme example of the phenomenon described by Ferial Haffajee in her
Harold Wolpe lecture (M&G 11 June) of local social movements projecting themselves
on a world stage by painting a totally distorted picture of South Africa.

A twist to the water story came when it was revealed that James Kilgore, one of the
authors of the report (as John Pape, together with Canadian David McDonald), had been
a member of the Symbionese Liberation Front, and was wanted in the USA by the FBI
for the murder of a bystander during a 1970s bank robbery.

By all accounts, Kilgore is a nice guy, and worked hard with Cape Town communities to
help them improve their lives. But the USA to which he has returned is living proof that
poorly judged revolutionary adventurism, whether robbing banks or making misleading
claims, may achieve short-term notoriety but doesn’t change the world.

At best, Kilgore and his MSP colleagues uncritically published incorrect information
because it supported their propaganda. But they could do this because not enough public
information was available about access to water supply.

The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry seeks to ensure that all South Africans
have equitable access to safe and reliable water supply. So we want to track who is
getting services and under what conditions. As we eradicate the water supply backlog –
which we believe is now down to just over 4 million people – we will focus not only on
the quality of the water from the tap but also on whether the services are reliable.

If we want informed public debate about matters of public policy then we must help to
inform it. And this is what we have subsequently tried to do. Shortly after the HSRC
acknowledged major problems with the MSPs research, we began work to fill the gap.

This is where the rigour called for by Ferial Haffajee comes in. When we looked at the
methodology used by the MSP, the flaws were obvious. They had asked people whether
their water had ever been cut off. They also failed to distinguish between cut-offs for
non-payment and interruptions for other reasons – like burst pipes.

So the Department worked with the HSRC to design part of a questionnaire that was used
in an annual survey based on a 5000 household sample representative of the South
African population (full results will be published by the HSRC shortly).

Our questions did not assume that all service interruptions were due to cut-offs for non-
payment. As a result, a whole new picture emerged:

63.0% of households reported that they suffered no interruptions of water supply longer
than a day during the previous year. 16% were interrupted once or twice, 15% several
times. The highest rate of interruptions was in Limpopo (38%), followed by Mpumalanga
(27%). (Embarrassingly, these are the provinces where the Department still provides
services to many rural communities, almost all free, with no deliberate cut-offs.)

Of those households whose supply was interrupted, a large majority (78%) either did not
know why supply was interrupted (39%) or said that it was for repairs (also 39%).

Only 7.5% said that they were cut off for non-payment. So 2.5% (7.5% of 33%) or
275 000 of all households attributed interruptions to cut-offs for non-payment in the past
year. Contrary to allegations, the poorest communities, households in rural and informal
urban settlements, were least affected by cut-offs for non-payment.

Since cut-offs are temporary by nature, we also tried to find out how many people were
actually affected by a cut-off for non-payment on a given day. Asked what source they
had used the day before the interview, only 2.3% of households had used a different
source to normal.

Half of those normally used a free public tap close to their households and most of them
had gone to another free source of piped water further than 200 metres away, suggesting
that the problems were management not cut-offs. Only 0.3% of households (30,000)
reported being cut off for non-payment and had to get water from other sources.

30 000 households is still too many although there will always be people whose abuse of
public facilities requires firm measures. But in terms of priorities, at least as much
attention must be given to the far larger number who are without water for other reasons
as Minister Buyelwa Sonjica commented in her budget, speech last week:

“While more work will be done, the results suggest that the main problem affecting
peoples’ water supplies is not cut offs for non-payment but the ability of service
providers to keep the water running. To address these challenges, R265 million is on this
year’s budget for local government support and capacity building and this will be
supplemented by generous donor funding.”
The new survey is not the stuff that normally makes headlines. It does not reveal a
heartless neo-liberal state enforcing a “pay-or-die” ideology at the expense of the poor. A
better characterisation might be of a well-meaning state struggling to manage rapidly
expanding services, constrained by limited management capacity and resources.

The survey incidentally confirmed Government’s claim that it has given more than a
million people a year access to water supply since 1994, leaving less than 5 million
people to be connected. It found that 89% of the population used piped water; 66.5% in
the house or stand, and 14.6% used a tap less than 200 metres away (within the
government's target level of service). 8% used sources more than 200 metres away while
3.2%, used boreholes or water tankers, also considered to be safe sources.

If there is an indictment of the so-called new left, it is the shoddiness of their research at
national level and their failure to engage effectively and constructively at local level
where participative local government planning and budgeting processes are there for the
taking. The activists based in academic institutions that claim to focus on public and
development management are failing to nurture the new cadre of municipal managers that
we need or, judging by the MSP survey, even to teach halfway competent social science
research.

It is hard work that does not usually get newspaper headlines. But it would do a great deal
more for the lives of the poor than all their activism to date.

                                         *********

Mike Muller is Director-General of Water Affairs and Forestry. He is also the author of
“The Baby Killer” (1974) which led to successful campaigns against Nestle and other
baby food makers for their harmful promotions of breast milk substitutes; “Tobacco and
the Third World: Tomorrow’s Epidemic” (1978) which provided a focus for ongoing
anti-smoking campaigns in developing countries; and “The Health of Nations” (1982)
which outlined the dynamics of the multinational pharmaceutical industry for the global
health movement. He attributes solid research and accuracy as the reason for the impact
of his reports.

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