South Africa's Water Policy Champions Rights of People and Ecosystems

(July 2000) During their country’s democratic transition, legislators in South Africa seized the opportunity to redress racial injustice. Under apartheid, water had been so inequitably distributed that water policy reform became a lead component of the new government’s Reconstruction and Development Programme. But the government, aware of looming water problems, went beyond rectifying socially constructed shortages to combating future water scarcity. In one fell swoop, policymakers erected what some describe as the most progressive water policy in the world.

Outsiders — particularly Americans — might consider the 1998 policy both politically risky and unacceptably vague. Beyond divorcing water rights from land rights, recognizing that all water use depends on maintaining healthy aquatic ecosystems, and decentralizing water management, the act contains few specifics on implementation, leaving government bureaucrats to set the pace and priorities for “phased” implementation.

South Africa’s Water Needs

Population: 43.4 million
Total Fertility Rate: 2.9
Climate: Mostly semiarid
Population With Access to Safe Water: 79%
Population With Adequate Sanitation: 53%
Outlook: Periodic or regular water stress in 1995; chronic water scarcity by 2025 if population growth and water use trends continue.

Sources: PRB’s 2000 World Population Data Sheet and various publications from the South African Ministry of Water Affairs and Forestry.

The South African water specialists working to implement the act see this considerable bureaucratic discretion as one example of the act’s genius. Bill Rowlston, of the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF), said: “It gives us the ability, I think, not to say what does the act prohibit us from doing, what does it insist that we must do, but what are we allowed to do … that is reasonable, that enables us to do the job, to meet the need.”

A Tall Order

The job is immense because the act and its companion Water Services Act, passed in 1997, have far-reaching goals:

  • Abolish the rights previously granted to landowners, who were almost exclusively white, to ground and surface water on their property. Make the central government the public trustee of the nation’s water resources.
  • Ensure access of all South Africans to enough water to meet their basic human needs and recognize aquatic ecosystems as having a legitimate right to their own water. Water for minimum human and ecological needs constitutes an untouchable “Reserve.”
  • Honor water provisions contained in international agreements and treaties.
  • Price water economically.
  • Establish water management and user agencies at the regional level, within hydrological areas known as catchments.
  • Issue licenses for water use, and review licenses every five years.
  • Impose water-use charges for discharging pollution directly into the resource.

Anthony Turton, director of the African Water Issues Research Unit at the University of Pretoria, admires the law, but noted that “implementing it is another matter indeed.” Turton pointed out that every river has to be studied in detail before the ecological Reserve can be determined, and because the apartheid policy denied blacks access to math and science education, there are few people in the country with the necessary skills. “We also lack capacity in policing pollution,” he said.

Nels Johnson, with the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C., observed that “whole new institutions have to be built,” referring to the formation of catchment management agencies and voluntary water-user associations.

Another challenge in implementing the act is communicating it to the people. Rowlston spoke of the need for raising awareness and understanding of the law, “so we can actually get the regulated population on our side.”

Communication with the “regulated population” tends to break down over specific provisions. Agriculturists, for instance, have expressed great support for the concept of the Reserve and basic human needs, but they don’t want their allocations to be cut, said Rowlston. Commercial foresters, whose livelihood was the only one labeled a “stream-flow reduction activity” in the act, have threatened not to pay water-use charges unless the department adds some other land-based cultivation activity to the offending category.

There are also sticking points in communicating with the biggest beneficiaries of the new laws: the 8 million or more poor black people in rural areas who still lack access to running water. Under the Water Services Act, they will gain access to standpipes that bring potable water to within 200 meters of every community. With better access will come responsibility for managing their water. To exercise that responsibility, people will need information and training from the DWAF. Rowlston noted that consulting with rural populations, who may not speak English, is costly and time-consuming.

George Dor, of the Alternative Information & Development Centre in Mowbray, South Africa, told African Eye News Service that inadequate communication between the DWAF and rural communities led to the department’s opting for “projects that are way too expensive … where people simply can’t afford to pay for water.” Residents in some villages where standpipes have been turned on have refused to pay for water, and there have been vandalism and piracy by recipient communities, according to the news service.

Balancing Acts

Because the National Water Act and the Water Services Act are closely intertwined, problems with delivery of water services, like those cited above, complicate the implementation of the National Water Act. The goals of the two laws are summed up in the motto “Some for all, forever,” but achieving these goals will take time. Rowlston set the time frame for ensuring that everyone has access to at least a basic water supply at between seven and 25 years, depending on the level of funding. The government has already spent 3.6 billion rand ($520 million) to improve water access and sanitation, and since 1994 has delivered clean water to 2.6 million more people.

Allison Tarmann is editor of Population Today.

For More Information

For more information on South Africa’s water policy (and on related U.S. policy), consult these websites and publications:

The African Water Page:

African Water Issues Research Unit, University of Pretoria:

School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London:

South African Department of Water Affairs and Forestry:

Alternative Information & Development Centre:


The Environmental Law Programme of the IUCN (The World Conservation Union):

The IUCN’s Commission on Environmental Law seeks:

  • to identify areas where improved legal and administrative instruments and mechanisms would contribute significantly to the process of conservation
  • to promote the development and improvement of environmental law at international and national levels by advocating adequate and innovative responses
  • to strengthen the capacity, especially in developing countries, to handle issues of environmental law development and expertise-building
  • to assist and advise IUCN members and other governmental and non-governmental institutions on the elaboration of international or national legal instruments.

World Resources Institute:

WRI is involved in the Working for Water Programme of the South African government. The program provides employment for 20,000 rural people, 60 percent of whom are women, to remove invasive alien vegetation that threatens the country’s aquatic system.


Patrick Bond and Robyn Stein, “Competing Discourses of Environmental and Water Management in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” forthcoming in Environmental Management in Developing Countries, eds. W. Wehrmeyer and Y. Mulugetta (London: Greenleaf Publications).

Patrick Bond and Greg Ruiters, “Drought and Liquidity: Water Shortages and Surpluses in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” forthcoming in Democracy and Governance Review, ed. M. Khosa (Pretoria, South Africa: Human Sciences Research Council).

Patrick Bond, The Elite Transition: From Apartheid to Neoliberalism in South Africa (London: Pluto Press, 2000).

Related Issues and Legislation in the United States

Marc Lifsher, “Key Official Says State-Federal Pact Should End California’s Water Wars,” Wall Street Journal, June 14, 2000.

Under the jurisdiction of the U.S. House of Representatives Water and Power Subcommittee (of the Committee on Resources), one law that has set aside a large amount of water for ecosystems is the Central Valley Improvement Act. The act passed in 1992 and required that 800,000 acre feet of water, currently held by private water right holders, be used for ecosystems. This law is still under litigation and probably will be for the next several years. The law citation is PL 102-575.