Johannesburg Water’s prepayment system


Johannesburg Water, the water and sanitation service provider for the City of Johannesburg in South Africa, has embarked on a large-scale intervention project in Soweto, currently in its third phase. The project named ‘Operation Gcin’amanzi’ (‘Operation Conserve Water’) aims to address the severe water supply problems experienced in the area.

The project, started in July 2003, is expected to be completed in June 2008 and includes a range of technical and social interventions to reduce the high levels of unaccounted for water (one third of Johannesburg Water’s purchases from Rand Water are pumped into Soweto, 70% of which is unbilled) and to improve service delivery. A total of 170,000 properties will benefit from this project. Operation Gcin’amanzi (OGA) is designed to address issues including metering and billing of customers, network rehabilitation, water leaks, and water usage habits.

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Multiple intervention measures, therefore, include the renewal and relocation of water network pipes and individual water connections to private properties, the repair of plumbing fixtures on private properties, and most critically the installation and operation of prepayment water meters. The upliftment of the local community is another social aspect of the project receiving much attention.

As much as 25% of the total construction value is spent on local resource participation, which includes work undertaken by local small, medium and micro enterprises and procurement from local suppliers. In addition, local labour is also used in the actual construction work to create local capacity and skills transfer in areas ranging from plumbing to business management. On average about 1,500 people are employed on this project at any given time.


In November 2003 the South African National Standard (SANS 1529-9), covering prepayment water meters with electronic read-outs as primary meter readings, was promulgated. This Standard provides the legal requirements for metrological acceptability, but, it does not address functionality and reliability. The aim is to ensure that the user receives the correct volume of water per monetary unit purchased. It is accepted that systems may fail or may be compromised, but in general, when a failure occurs or the system is deliberately interfered with, such an event need only be detected to allow appropriate action to be taken.

Reliability and functionality issues are best addressed by the suppliers and the meter developers/manufacturers. Prepayment water metering was a slow starter, when compared with prepayment electricity, due to the technological challenges and difficult circumstances under which the water meters must function. For a period of about six years, prior to the standard being released, various meter configurations were developed and field tested, with customer product experience shaping requirements.

Despite vast amounts spent on development, the initial reliability of the systems on offer did not meet the expectations and prepayment water metering came close to being abandoned. However, by the time the standard was published, metering systems had developed to a point where they offered a viable solution for equitable distribution of water. A pilot project run at that time showed an 80% saving of the water typically consumed under ‘uncontrolled’ conditions.

There was, however, still a need for further development. Reliability is all important. Meter reliability influences cost of maintenance, user confidence and service quality. Prepayment water meters are far more complex than ordinary water meters and there is a direct relationship between reliability and the number of components in a system. All mass produced systems go through a reliability growth when negative factors are eliminated.

This optimum is normally set by what the market perceives as a realistic product price and by the consequences of failure. Conversely, manufacturers would rather sacrifice profit than be swamped by failed meters. Over the last three years the reliability for Johannesburg Water has increased from over 5% failures per month to less than 0.3% per month. A figure of less than three failures per thousand per month is foreseen in the short to medium term. To try and push the benchmark beyond this point will have product cost implications that would probably be difficult to justify. Extensive technological improvements have been made on the meters to make them user friendly for both Johannesburg Water and its customers.

Unlike other prepayment water meters, Johannesburg Water’s prepayment water meters are programmed to provide the free basic 6 kl in advance and to allow for purchase of water credits beyond this limit. The meter is able to detect any leak and to show such a finding on its LCD display. The meters are able to indicate the amount of available water credits for each customer and the amount of water consumed since the installation of the meter. They are able to carry over the purchased water credits to the next month or until consumed.

The personalised tag enables the customer to lock and unlock the meter. The technical aspects of the prepayment metering system have not been limited to the metering component, but have introduced the concept of the Total Prepayment System (TPS), including but not limited to the meter, meter box, customer information transfer unit (e.g. user token or smart card), hand held vending unit, field maintenance unit, system master station, training, site support, professional support, standby and complaints handling procedure. Johannesburg Water has pioneered the establishment of a Prepayment User Forum, which started in January 2006.

It currently consists only of Johannesburg Water (57,000 meter installations) and Mogale City (10,000 meter installations), which are the largest water prepayment users in the country.

The forum has several aims:

  • The rapid introduction and implementation of STS enhancement – the standard that governs two way transfer of information and vending infrastructure. It will also help to create an open market for prepayment and not enforce the use of proprietary systems
  • Involvement in and contribution to the SANS 1529-9 working committee of the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS)
  • Ensuring that only fully compliant type-approved SABS 1529-9 meters are recommended and utilised
  • Standardisation of prepayment tender technical specifications
  • Safeguarding the interests of users and its customers
  • Promoting the development of meter functionality to world standards
  • Stimulating the local prepayment meter and associated services manufacturing industry.


Following the successful piloting of prepayment water, a need for the establishment of a dedicated prepayment business unit (PBU) was identified in 2004. The mandate of the PBU is to provide specialist skills and expertise in the project management of prepayment projects, management of prepayment technology, prepayment innovation, contract administration as well as to provide technical support for all Johannesburg Water prepayment sites/projects and capacity and support for operations and maintenance (Figure 1).

The fruits of this labour are already paying off. More than 54,000 households are now equipped with free payment meters. Less than 2% have opted for the installation of standpipes as an alternative to prepayment meter installation. Water supplied in these areas has dropped from 66.7 kl/month/stand to about 11.43 kl/month/stand. This represents a reduction of about 83% in bulk water savings, which translates into a R95 million (US$13.4 million) saving to date.

Revenue generated from the sale of water credits is R13 million (US$1.8 million). On average 46% of customers use more than 6 kl/ month and are topping up with additional water credits averaging R22 (US$3)/month. Further benefits include debt write-off upon installation of a prepayment meter. Plans are already underway to prepare for the next phase of the macro project targeting a further 50,000 households.

Community engagements are at an advanced stage with about 85% of customers who have already opted for the installation of free payment meters. This follows the adoption of a demand responsive approach after being petitioned by many households in these communities. The success of the project in Soweto has triggered the commissioning of the installation of prepayment water meters in other parts of the City of Johannesburg.

A total of approximately 12,000 meters are being installed in areas including Cosmo-City and Lehae (both of which are mixedincome developments). With approximately 60,000 prepayment waters already installed, this makes Johannesburg Water and the City of Johannesburg the municipality with the largest number of prepayment water meters in South Africa. As a result many municipalities and water authorities, both local and international, have expressed interest in how this has been achieved, given the practical challenges of such a project.


In the last four years, Johannesburg Water has demonstrated its ability to dramatically improve service to its customers, contribute meaningfully to water demand management and provide cost effective, affordable and sustainable services.

The case study of Operation Gcin’amanzi reveals that management, combined with technical (construction), technological and social engineering expertise, is critical in the implementation of large scale multi-stakeholder projects. Johannesburg Water still faces strong challenges in sustaining the levels of community buy-in and managing the volume of work remaining to ensure successful completion of the project, all of which will ultimately contribute to the utility becoming selfsustainable.

Through the successful implementation of Gcin’amanzi residents can look forward to:

  • More affordable water and sanitation services.
  • Lower tariffs for water and sanitation.
  • Reduction of future arrears amounts.
  • Once-off repair of private plumbing fixtures free of charge.
  • Better and more consistent delivery of services.

Overall, Operation Gcin’amanzi ensures the promotion of a better relationship between Johannesburg Water and its prepayment customers. It is envisaged that as the project rollout continues, that a major portion of Johannesburg’s ‘liquid gold’ will be brought under control. Over and above the specific needs, targets and results of Johannesburg Water, one should not lose sight of the impact on the country as a whole.

The huge saving in water consumed not only protects the scarce water resources, but also allows water treatment plants and supply infrastructure to operate much longer, without capital intensive upgrades. From this standpoint the water prepayment system that evolved is a very important implementation in ensuring that every person in the country can eventually be supplied with adequate potable water, with only modest charges for limited over-consumption.