Strengthening municipal systems for inclusive and sustainable water and sanitation in South Africa

A woman walks to collect water from the Motse River near her home in Magobading village in Limpopo province, South Africa.
Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media

In theory, South Africa has many of the requirements to deliver Sustainable Development Goal 6 in place: The country has:

  • Progressive policies and regulations
  • A clear institutional framework
  • Advanced decentralisation – political, fiscal and administrative
  • A substantial and budgeted commitment to eradicating inequalities through free basic services, such as water, sanitation and electricity
  • A national information system with varying degrees of alignment at municipal level
  • An engaged and informed media sector
  • Active citizens who creatively and persistently claim their socio-economic rights, including to water and sanitation.

However, in May 2020, South Africa’s Department of Water and Sanitation confirmed that only 64% of households in the country has access to a reliable water supply service, and that 18% of the population does not have access to improved sanitation. What’s more, the 2019 National Water and Sanitation Master Plan reported that the percentage of the population receiving reliable water services is lower than it was in 1994, at the end of apartheid.

Many of the challenges associated with providing water services in South Africa relate to the state of local government. The national government and donors have invested significant resources in building municipal systems – increasing capacity and strengthening governance. Despite these investments, however, many municipalities are still unable to deliver a basic and reliable service to every household.

This study explores the following three research questions:

  • Why has the delivery of basic water and sanitation services not met expectations?
  • Why have efforts to improve outcomes resulted in so little success?
  • What are the recommendations for strengthening these systems, considering the high failure rate of previous initiatives?

This report’s findings should be of interest to:

  • Government departments responsible for supporting municipal services, such as the National Treasury, the Department of Water, Sanitation and Human Settlements , the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, and the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs;
  • Researchers, practitioners, and civil society organisations, including WaterAid staff, that provide research, advocacy and/or sector support.

Top image: A woman walks to collect water from the Motse River near her home in Magobading village in Limpopo province, South Africa.