Answer to a question from a reader

Who qualifies for free municipal water?

The short answer

You need to register as indigent to receive free municipal services.

The whole question

Dear Athalie

I read in one of your articles that indigent people are allowed 6,000 litres of water. How does that work and how can I apply? I live in eThekwini Municipality.

The long answer

The Free Basic Water (FBW) policy of 6,000 litres a month was established in 2001 following a bad cholera outbreak in KwaZulu-Natal, to assist poor households to access clean water. But as many critics have pointed out, this FBW policy, which was supposed to provide a minimal amount of free water, has become the maximum amount of water that many poor households can access. This is done through prepaid meters, water management devices and water restrictors.

Prepayment water meters automatically disconnect once the FBW supply is used up, unless more water is paid for and loaded. This means that many poor households are left without water for days on end. Also, there is no recording of such disconnections, which are often called “silent disconnections”. 

Suraya Scheba in a 2022 article on Water Dissensus said that FBW is financed through two main sources: the cross-subsidies that municipalities afford through financing the first free block through higher tariffs at the top end of water consumption by richer people, and the Equitable Share Allocation to all municipalities from National Treasury.

The eThekwini Municipality said in its 2023/2024 tariffs paper that if your property is valued under R250,000, there should be no charge for the first 6,000 litres. But you are required to be registered as indigent to receive free municipal services.

Greg Ruiters in a 2018 article noted that municipalities do not make applying for indigent benefits easy: there are a lot of complex and time-consuming procedures and a lot of proof is required. Municipalities change policies and change who qualifies, and sanctions may be applied unevenly. 

This has meant that registration for municipal indigent benefits is low across the country: far fewer people register as indigents than those who are eligible. As the revenue from water services is one of the main sources of money for municipalities, they are under pressure to view water services as a revenue stream rather than a public service.  

In December 2023, the Mercury newspaper in Durban reported that rate payers are preparing for a legal battle against the eThekwini Municipality after the City demanded that residents pay up thousands of rands as a result of a City billing error that has been going on since 2020: houses worth more than R250,000 were getting Free Basic Water when they were not supposed to. 

The City sent out a statement in January 2024 saying: “Customers affected by the technical error of 6kL of water undue credit to their accounts will need to sign up for a payment plan. They will be required to pay an additional R180 per month on their Municipal bill until the debt is paid in full.”

In your case, if you qualify, you should take steps to register for free municipal services if you have not already done so, however burdensome this is. 

If you have registered for free municipal services and are not receiving the free 6,000 litres, you will have to make a complaint to the Municipality, taking all your documents along to prove that you have indeed registered.

These are the contact details given by the Municipality:

For any water and sanitation related matters, members of the public can contact the call centre on 080 131 3013, the toll-free number on 080 311 1111 or use the eThekwini Water and Sanitation WhatsApp number on 073 1483 477.

If the municipality does not assist you, you could approach one of the following organisations for help


Tel: Durban: 031 301 0531

Tel: Durban: 031 301 7572

Wishing you the best,

Answered on April 19, 2024, 9:57 a.m.

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