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Municipal water supply cut-offs - is this legal?

05 Jun 2018

The Cape Town Municipality’s water department has been reasonably efficient in keeping track of water consumption and penalising those who do not comply with the new rulings limiting water usage.

In these extreme conflict situations, although a cut-off might be very inconvenient, Alexander says it could pay the consumer to refuse to pay and buy their water from an independent supplier for several months rather than continue to pay exorbitant charges based on “crazy” calculations.

Regrettably, however, says Rowan Alexander, Director of Alexander Swart Property, there have been several cases (see the municipality’s website on this matter) where clerical and other errors have resulted in certain consumers paying five, ten or more times higher charges than they should for their water, and in certain instances these consumers have retaliated by refusing to pay their water bills.

“The legal arguments that come into play here rest on basic concepts outlined in South Africa’s constitution. These have been interpreted by some to say that all citizens have a right to water, and that penalising them by cutting it off for non- payment is illegal,” says Alexander.

“In fact, however, what the constitution says is that all South Africans have a right to water access, i.e. to water if and when the local infrastructure is in place to provide it and the local authority can afford to make it available to them. In many of South Africa’s country areas and peri-urban settlements, while the right to access water is not disputed, the ability to provide it is simply not there as yet.”

Alexander says Schindlers Attorneys have drawn attention to a case which came before the Johannesburg division of the Gauteng High Court (Edina Court vs City of Johannesburg). In this case, while the municipality’s right to cut off water supplies was acknowledged by the court, it was ruled that they had no right to terminate the supply of six free kilolitres per household granted each month in certain very poor areas. This decision, however, does not apply, the court ruled, to ‘non-indigent’ citizens.

Regrettably, Alexander says the Cape Town municipality does not usually respond quickly to complaints about unfair charges, leaving the affected parties little option but to refuse to pay their bills. In one case, he says it took them almost a year to replace a stolen water meter during which time the householder’s consumption was ‘estimated’ - invariably at 30% or 40% higher than their previous charges. When the new meter was installed, it proved to be faulty. After the installation of a third meter, which appears to be accurate, further exceptionally high ‘estimated’ consumption fees continue to be charged. This is only one of many similar cases reported recently.

In these extreme conflict situations, although a cut-off might be very inconvenient, Alexander says it could pay the consumer to refuse to pay and buy their water from an independent supplier for several months rather than to continue to pay exorbitant charges based on “crazy” calculations. During the cut-off period, the consumers’ grievances can be handed over to a legal firm who, if the consumer’s cause is just, will not only eventually get the situation put right, but will also secure for the consumer many months of water credits.

“All too often the consumer simply caves in and pays ridiculously high charges month after month whilst the municipality, in their own rather relaxed way, goes about ‘investigating’ the error, often coming up with inaccurate conclusions - and the problem is compounded by the difficulty that, while those handling the complaint are usually polite and sympathetic, their power is limited to passing on the details given them, not to authorising immediate action,” says Alexander.

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