A landmark High Court ruling against a multimillion-dollar prepaid water scheme in South Africa’s largest township, Soweto, has been heralded as a global precedent in the struggle for the basic human right to water. The City of Johannesburg is expected to appeal the judgement and residents realise that “the struggle will not end anytime soon”.
In a class-action suit, five residents of Phiri, one of Soweto’s poorest townships, asked the court to order the city to provide at least 50 litres of free water per person per day.
They also asked that they be given the choice of an ordinary credit water meter instead of the prepaid system imposed by the city, on which the court ruled in their favour as well.
The prepaid system was part of a larger scheme called operation Gcin’amanzi, meaning ‘save water’, to improve and expand Soweto’s aging waterworks. “The problem for the city had been the large amount water that was unaccounted for,” said Virgil James, spokesman for the City of Johannesburg. Estimates on the City of Johannesburg’s website put water loss in the township alone at about seven billion litres a month. “The meters have already led to a significant reduction in unaccounted water loss [52 billion litres of water had been saved so far], saving money.”
Although James argued that free water was not sustainable, [...] the court said there was no need for the water utility to recoup investments, and insisted that Johannesburg City had both the financial means and access to sufficient water to provide 50 litres per person per day.
Read more: IRIN, 6 May 2008
Ashfaq Khalfan, Coordinator of the Right to Water Programme of the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) said, “This decision will be an immense boost to poor communities in South Africa and elsewhere. It is a warning shot against attempts to forcibly impose pre-paid water systems on the poor elsewhere in Africa and globally.” The judgment [...] creates a useful precedent for litigation globally, said COHRE on their web site.
The South African Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) has made the submissions of the applicants and respondents in the case of Mazibuko v. City of Johannesburg available on its site.
International support to the case was provided by:
- COHRE (Switzerland), which provided a third party submission (amicus curiae), and
- Peter Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security (USA), who submitted a supporting affidavit (see also the Institute’s related press release).