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ELECTION FACTSHEET: Water in South Africa

Ahead of South Africa’s May 2024 elections, we look at access to water, a basic human right in the country.

On 29 May, South Africans will vote in national and provincial elections.

Water has been a hotly debated issue during campaigning. While some political parties have deplored crumbling infrastructure and water outages, others have claimed responsibility for improved access and the cleanest drinking water in the country. 

In this factsheet, we cut through the noise. Who has access to water in South Africa? What problems do South Africans experience with water delivery? And what was the country’s supply like in 1994?

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1. Who has access to water?

Statistics South Africa’s general household survey (GHS) has included data on access to services, including water, since 2002. 

The most recent publication covers 2023 and shows that access to an improved source of water was 87%. In 2002, the figure was 84.4%.

Improved water sources include piped or tap water, water in a dwelling or yard, from a neighbour’s tap, or from a public or communal tap less than 200 metres away.

Several provinces saw a decrease in access to an improved water source between 2002 and 2023. The most notable decline was in Limpopo, where access fell from 73.8% in 2002 to 64.2% in 2023.

Other provinces with declining access were the Northern Cape, Free State and Mpumalanga.

KwaZulu-Natal saw an increase from 75.4% in 2002 to 81.5% in 2023. The Eastern Cape had a larger increase, from 56.1% to 67.2%.

The Western Cape (99.3%) and Gauteng (97.6%) had the highest proportion of households with access to an improved water source, although the latter province declined slightly from 98.7% in 2022.

2. Who doesn’t have access to water?

Data provided to Africa Check by Stats SA shows that in 2023, 14.8% of households headed by black Africans had no access to piped water. Piped water includes water in a dwelling, on-site or in a yard, from a neighbour's tap, or a public or communal tap.

Stats SA identifies the population group of a household according to what the “head of the household” reports as their race.

The figure was 7.3% for white headed households, 1.5% for Indian or Asian headed households and 2% for coloured headed households.

3. What are the problems with South Africa's water supply?

The functionality of municipal water supply services was measured in the 2022 GHS. It measured the extent to which households that received water from the municipality reported interruptions lasting more than two days at a time or more than 15 days in 12 months.

Just under 36% of South African households reported water supply disruptions lasting at least two days. 

The provinces with the highest water supply interruptions were Mpumalanga (66.9%) and the Northern Cape (59.7%), while the lowest were the Western Cape (3.4%) and Gauteng (22.8%).

4. Water delivery issues in metros

There are eight metropolitan municipalities in South Africa. These are larger municipalities with the country’s major cities at their centres and are therefore characterised by a concentration of households and people.

The 2023 GHS found that 97.2% of households in metros had access to tap water.

Households in Cape Town (99.8%) and Johannesburg (98.9%) had the highest percentage of reported water interruptions. The lowest percentages were reported by households in Mangaung (91.7%) and Nelson Mandela Bay (87.6%).

5. What was water access like in 1994?

South Africa’s 1996 census is likely the “earliest credible data” on water access. An estimated 81.2% of households had access to piped water in 1996, according to the census. 

The Southern Africa Labour Development Research Unit (SALDRU) conducted a smaller but still nationally representative survey, of fewer than 9,000 households, in late 1993 and early 1994.

The survey found that 76.4% of households had access to piped water. Of these, only 67% of black African households had access, compared to almost 100% of white, coloured and Indian households.

However, statistics from the early 1990s should be compared with caution to more recent figures. This is due to differences in sampling, methodology and definitions.

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