Opinion 4

The Right to Basic Water Supply?

Can a poor person's supply be cut off? South Africa's water law is tested.
Read the report

I am not a lawyer. I have worked in the water sector for a few years though and was privileged to be part of the reform process of the water law in South Africa. The case of Christina Manqele, an indigent single mother of with 7 children has come before the courts in South Africa to test the notion of the right to a water supply. The case seems interesting on a few counts. (I base my comments on the report which you can read here. My knowledge of the case is therefore necessarily limited - my concern is not so much this particular case but the issues it raises.)

In principle I support the notion of basic water supply as a human right - the problem is how such a right would be realised and enforced at local and national level. I support the notion of a public obligation to ensure that all citizens have access to a basic water service. The promotion of such rights needs careful thought and the commitment of people throughout the sector. Peter Gleick in his article "The Human Right to Water" argues the international case for water as a human right and joins a growing movement to advocate the adoption of the notion. The case of Christina Manqele interests me as a layperson - it raises some very practical difficulties at a local municipal level.

Just as an aside, to run up a bill of R10 000.00 (about 1400US$) is quite a feat, even for a house with a swimming pool etc. in a wealthy suburb. This particular case may therefore not be the most appropriate on which to base the interests of the majority of people who do not have water supplies - many of whom may not have seen R10 000.00 worth of water in their lives.

The disconnection appears to be as a punitive response to default in payment of significant debts - not the inability to pay for a minimum or lifeline service. Without knowing all the details it is difficult to say, but it would appear that the issues of debt recovery and the right to minimum water supplies may be confused - this is very important as there is a need to address the question of rights to basic water supplies clearly and with as little confusion as possible.

This is a person who is served from an urban reticulation system which, it would appear, provides a metered household service. This is a far higher level of service than is enjoyed by the majority of those who do not have adequate supplies in rural areas, small towns and urban fringes. The greater convenience and quantities available may be beyond the affordability of some users. The right to basic water services, irrespective of affordability, raises the question of how services are to be financed if not by the user. A right to water necessarily implies a right to public expenditure i.e. a public obligation, which is different to many other rights such as a right to freedom of expression. The report refers to the disconnection of 10 000 customers for non-payment. What are the institutional and financial implications of a right of supply?


The case is different to a "green field" situation where there is no existing service. In such cases the demands of one individual or group may prejudice the interests of others. The unit cost of providing supply to a person or community in one location inevitably varies significantly from the cost of providing a similar service in another location. In other words to provide for the rights of one person may cost 10 to 50 times more than to provide for another - with limited public funds available, meeting the rights of one person may deny the rights of 10 to 50 others.

These difficulties should not deter those who advocate the human right to water - the fact that there are millions of people who are malnourished does not invalidate or diminish the right to food (Article 25, UN Declaration of Human Rights 1948). There is much to be done.

The South African Constitution, in Section 27 (1)(b) states "Everyone has the right to have access to sufficient food and water". This is now being tested - we watch with interest.