Two distinctive features of the South African water sector are the policy of free basic water and the existence of water boards, which are bulk water supply agencies that operate pipelines and sell water from reservoirs to municipalities. These features have led to significant problems concerning the financial sustainability of service providers, leading to a lack of attention to maintenance. Notwithstanding, in May 2014, Durban’s Water and Sanitation Department won the Stockholm Industry Water Award “for its transformative and inclusive approach”, calling it “one of the most progressive utilities in the world”.
The city was South Africa’s first municipality to put free basic water for the poor into practice connecting 1.3 million additional people to piped water and provided 700,000 with access to toilets in 14 years. The city has also promoted Rainwater harvesting and mini hydropower. Following the end of Apartheid, the country had made improvements in the levels of access to water as those with access increased from 66% to 79% from 1990 to 2010. Sanitation access increased from 71% to 79% during the same period. However, water supply and sanitation in South Africa has come under increasing pressure in recent years despite a commitment made by the government to improve service standards and provide investment subsidies to the water industry.
On February 13, 2018, the country declared a national disaster in Cape Town as the city’s water supply was predicted to run dry before the end of June. With its dams only 24.9% full, water-saving measures were in effect that required each citizen to use less than 50 litres a day. All nine of the country’s provinces were effected by what the government characterized as the “magnitude and severity” of a three-year drought. The city is one of 11 major world cities that are predicted to run out of water according to UN-endorsed projections.