Capacity Building, policy and legislative reform in the water sector in South Africa


Jump to: navigation, search


Capacity Building, policy and legislative reform in the water sector in South Africa



Focus Areas

Geographic Scope




Background and Significance

South Africa is a country emerging from a history of political oppression to become a nation of democratic values for human dignity, equality and freedom. Poverty is the foremost social concern. The rapid growth of informal urban settlements also presents a major challenge. According to recent statistics, approximately 5 million people (28 percent of the urban population) live in such settlements without proper water services infrastructure. Some informal settlements are located along river reaches, which exposes them to waterborne diseases and makes them vulnerable to flooding. The fast growth of settlement development poses major challenges to municipalities and service providers.

Although groundwater represents only about 9 percent of water resources, 74 percent of South African rural communities are dependent entirely on groundwater, while another 14 percent depend partially on it. Moreover, there remains the challenge to address the 9 million people who still lack access to water supply, 64 percent of which live in rural settlements. In addition, 16 million people are still without acceptable basic sanitation facilities, 56 percent of which are rural inhabitants. The scattered nature of rural settlements presents major challenges for providing sustainable services. Public institutions also suffer from a lack of access to safe water and sanitation services: 59 percent of all schools (over 16,000) and clinics (over 2,500) lack access to acceptable sanitation facilities, while 27 percent of all schools (over 7,500) and 48 percent of all clinics (over 2,000) lack access to safe water supply.

The Experience: Challenges and Solutions

South Africa has initiated a comprehensive basic water services programme to provide effective, affordable and equitable water services to all. The free basic water (FBW) programme to ensure access to effective water supply and sanitation services, in association with access to health facilities and services, plays a major role in addressing water-related diseases and improving the health and quality of life of all people. The South African Government is also promoting improved hygiene practices through national programmes, campaigns and education awareness at schools and in communities. Furthermore, the provision of free basic water services to the poor has become a national policy since 2000. This programme aims to ensure that poor households receive 6,000 litres of FBW per month. Beyond this basic allowance, users must pay for their consumption. The programme is progressively implemented by the Water Services Authorities, and over 76 percent of the population already receives access to FBW. Progress is also being made to ensure access to water supply and sanitation services at all schools and clinics.

The Government is also giving increasing attention to social programmes in poverty-stricken areas to reduce the vulnerability of poor households. An example of this is the development of food plots and vegetable gardens for poor communities. Furthermore, institutional reform is underway to facilitate equitable access to water resources and representation in water management institutions. Moreover, in line with the national water resource strategy, water conservation measures have been introduced in the energy sector, resulting in savings of up to 40 percent of water consumption per energy unit generated. Pollution control and water resource quality management are also receiving high priority. Specific attention is being given to effective use and conservation measures through various legislations such as the 1998 National Water Act.

In South Africa, water is governed by the National Water Act and the Water Services Act, supported by a dedicated Minister, a National Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, as well as various water institutions at various levels. Legislation in South Africa recognizes water as a national asset and a strategic resource for economic and social development. It also recognizes the need to protect the environment and ensure quality of life. IWRM has been adopted to achieve these goals. To date, four of the nineteen planned Catchment Management Agencies have been established. A further 170 municipalities have been given the responsibility to act as Water Services Authorities. This is supported by various infrastructure, finance, capacity building and management programmes. Currently almost 3 percent of the national budget is allocated to water governance, and additional funds are provided for specific water-related programmes and infrastructure development.

Disasters like drought, floods, fires and epidemic outbreaks of diseases are common in South Africa. To manage these risks, South Africa has adopted a proactive planning and management approach. Through the national disaster management policy, institutional arrangements and early warning systems have been established. Water resources and water services management is guided by a National Water Resource Strategy, catchment management strategies, integrated strategic perspectives and water services development plans. These are supported by institutional reform and the development of comprehensive regulatory frameworks. A key challenge is the development of appropriate skills and the capacity building of newly established water institutions. South Africa is also in the process of establishing a comprehensive integrated monitoring framework for water resources and water services. These various governance initiatives instill an effective, participative and sustainable water management culture in South Africa.

Furthermore, water research plays a major role in establishing and maintaining the knowledge base. The Water Research Act of 1971 established the Water Research Commission (WRC), mandating it to coordinate and support water research, using funds from a dedicated Water Research Fund. Besides the direct impact on water resources, governance, management and development, these research projects also play a major role in capacity building: more than 100 Masters and thirty PhD degrees were awarded in 2004.

Results and Impact

There are four major transboundary river basins in South Africa, encompassing 65 percent of the country’s surface area, 72 percent of the population and 40 percent of available water resources. These are the Limpopo (South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique), the Komati (South Africa, Swaziland, and Mozambique), the Maputo (South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique) and the Orange basins (South Africa, Lesotho and Namibia). Water scarcity is a limiting factor for development, and therefore the value of water is high in all aspects of society, economy and environment. To address the challenges faced in terms of severe poverty and water pollution, inter alia, South Africa has undertaken comprehensive legislative and policy reform and is in the process of implementing these through various national programmes.

The South African government aims to address the needs of the poorest in society by ensuring access to basic services through dedicated programmes for infrastructure and free basic water services. The social value of water is founded in the desperate need of the 3.6 million people (8 percent of the population) who currently do not have access to any water supply infrastructure, and the 9 million people (39 percent of the population) who do not receive minimum basic water supply services. Securing household food security is a common concern, as many families live a subsistence lifestyle and depend on rainfed irrigation to produce their own food. Although irrigation plays a strategic role in providing food security during dry years, water scarcity impedes irrigation on a wider scale.

To address these challenges, South Africa has undertaken a comprehensive policy and legislative reform and is in the process of implementing these through various national programmes. This goes hand-in-hand with institutional reform and capacity building programmes in order to ensure that IWRM is implemented and sustainable effective service delivery is ensured.

South Africa successfully achieved the MDG target of halving the proportion of people lacking access to safe water by 2015 (reduced from 40 percent to 19 percent since 1994). The remaining challenge is to address the remaining 9 million people who still lack access to water supply.

Lessons for Replication

The scattered nature of rural settlements presents major challenges to providing sustainable water services.

Improving the technical skils and capacity building of newly established water institutions is crucial.

The industrial and mining sectors are major contributors to the overall wealth of South Africa. To support economic growth and development, South Africa must reconcile the growing demands of the different uses with limited water availability, while ensuring the sustainability of ecosystems.

Testimonies and Stakeholder Perceptions

The Experience at a Glance

Implementing Agency(ies)


See also

Other case studies in South Africa
  1. Facing Water Challenges in Swaziland: A WWDR3 Case Study
  2. Sharing the Incomati Waters: Cooperation and Competition in the Balance
  3. Water Conflict and Cooperation/Incomati River Basin

External Resources

Case study summary


 South africa.pdf

5044 Rating: 2.3/5 (55 votes cast)