Water and welfare: Free basic water revisited

This paper reviews South Africa’s efforts to realise the right to water from a welfare policy perspective. ‘Free basic water’ (FBW), initially a water sector policy, was later recognised to be part of the country’s wider social protection framework. However, while the principle of providing poor households with free basic services has been sustained, FBW has not provided reliable access for many of its intended beneficiaries. Analysis of the policy, implementation and performance of the programme identifies unresolved policy tensions between welfare objectives and other government priorities, reflected in the choice of targeted rather than universal welfare strategies. It is concluded that these welfare policy tensions have weakened the outcomes of the free basic water policy which are more usually blamed on operational and institutional failures. While the FBW principle is generally accepted, practical performance is often weak.