Operation Gcin’Amanzi (Operation Conserve Water)


Johannesburg Water (JW), the water and sanitation service provider for the City of Johannesburg in South Africa, has embarked on a large-scale intervention project in Soweto, a commercial and residential area of 1 million people close to the city. 

A new large-scale intervention 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 and will be completed in June 2007, when it will have been rolled out to approximately 162,000 erven.

A range of intervention measures are included as part of this project, to reduce the level of unaccounted-for water and to improve service delivery. One-third of JW’s purchases from Rand Water, at a cost of R350 million (US$58.3 million) are pumped into Soweto, of which 70% is unbilled.


Much of the current volume of water purchased annually for the Soweto region is going to waste. Survey results have pointed to defective plumbing, leaking mains and inefficient water usage by residents as contributing factors. Furthermore, water consumption in Soweto is currently billed as deemed consumption, a fictitious consumption amount per property of 20 kl/month, while the actual volume per property is in fact far in excess of this amount (61 kl/month).

A key component of the Operation Conserve Water project is moving from a deemed consumption to a metered consumption, which will include the dispensing of 6kl per month free basic water. This will automatically be included in the metering system. Prepayment water meters will therefore be installed in residential properties as the enabling tool which, together with other measures, will contribute to sustainable water service delivery. It is expected that the installation of prepayment meters will lead to a stronger sense of ownership of consumption among consumers, and facilitate responsible water management.

A prototype for a similar programme has already been successfully implemented in Phiri, a suburb of Soweto, and it is hoped that the installation of a similar system in the rest of the township will be as successful. There have been many improvements to the system since the first prototype, to ensure that meter features and enhancements are more customer-friendly.


In order to facilitate a logical and technical approach, Soweto has been subdivided into a series of 13 Superblocks. These  Superblocks are viewed as individual projects with separate tender processes, commencing with a prototype project in Phiri (2,145 stands).

The project has a holistic approach, involving technical and social intervention measures. Detailed network surveys are undertaken prior to the start of the technical intervention, to determine the exact state and location of the reticulation system. Water and sewerage services are then improved by laying larger diameter pipes in the road reserve to replace the old mid-block mains within the erven, which are then decommissioned.

About 160 km of piping will be replaced in the process. These connections have been around for decades; some are 50 years old and are no longer in proper working condition. Residents’ leaking plumbing fixtures are also repaired or replaced free of charge as a once-off intervention. We expect to save significant amounts of water just by improving the reticulation system.

In addition to saving Johannesburg Water about R158 million (US$26.3 million) a year by reducing bulk purchases, the project is set to have benefits for residents as well. While residents will receive an improved service, other benefits include the introduction of a subsidised volumetric tariff which allows for the provision of free basic sanitation and a debt write-off initiative over 36 months, subject to the meter being used responsibly. 


The battle against water privatisation and the installation of prepayment meters in Johannesburg continues unabated. The Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) whose community affiliates the Soweto Crisis Committee and the Phiri Concerned Residents Committee, alongside other social movements and progressive NGOs who form part of the Coalition Against Water Privatisation (CAWP), have been leading this initiative.

Efforts have centred on resistance to Johannesburg Water’s R450 million (US$75 million) 5-year programme Operation Gcin’amanzi’ (conserve water). Launched in August 2003, the purpose of the project has been to install prepaid water meters and ‘shallow’ sanitation infrastructure throughout the community of Soweto, as a prelude to a much broader rollout of these meters in poor communities.

As a result of the APF’s and CAWP’s organised resistance, the Phiri community has managed to disrupt Operation Gcin’amanzi. After almost 18 months of operations, only a few hundred prepaid water meters have successfully been installed. This community resistance has included direct action, legal defence and educational campaigns. It has meant that Johannesburg Water has been unable to expand its prepaid operations to the rest of Soweto, despite a propaganda campaign and the manipulation of the police and the court system to try to criminalise and crush community resistance.

Despite arrests, harassment, water cut-offs, threats of legal action and the issuing of fines, increasing numbers of residents have intensified resistance and have gone a long way to ensuring that the installation of prepaid water meters remains a seriously contested battleground, not only in Johannesburg but across South Africa.

In addition to the ongoing community resistance on the ground, the APF and CAWP are moving ahead with a Constitutional Court case aimed at outlawing the installation of prepaid meters. This case is expected to enter the court system in the coming 2-3 months, thus opening up another front in the widening battle against water privatisation.

Municipal elections will be held later this year, and we expect to hear all sorts of promises about ‘free’ water to poor communities, with claims of community support for privatised service delivery policies. What is becoming increasingly clear, though, is that ever-expanding numbers of people (particularly the poor) will not be fooled – they have experienced the devastating effects of the pursuit of privatised water delivery. Indeed, the prepaid water meter has rapidly become a symbol of all that is wrong with the privatisation/corporatisation of basic services delivery.

The privatisation programme is now more vulnerable than ever – especially when it comes to water, which is essential to all life. The APF and CAWP will intensify efforts to mobilise and organise around the issue of water provision (and especially prepaid meters) as part of our broader political campaign against neo-liberal policies. The challenge remains to extend those struggles to other poor communities around the country, and to work with social movements to ensure that the privatisation of basic services becomes unsustainable.


One of the most vital aspects of such a project is gaining buy-in and support from the community, and this is an ongoing process. It has in part been done through consultation and information sessions with the various Council and community structures. Furthermore, JW has embarked on a comprehensive institutional and social development programme, including campaigns to address the political, social and consumer-related issues that directly and indirectly contribute to the runaway water supply problem in Soweto.

An education campaign is being implemented in which the efficient use of water, the water cycle, tariff rates, purpose and use of meters and the importance of customer rights and obligations are being highlighted. This is being done through public meetings, workshops and door-to-door campaigns conducted by locally recruited community facilitators. Workshops and information sessions are also held with stakeholders such as women’s forums, youth groups, schools, parents, teachers, pensioners and veterans’ groups.

The door-to-door campaign includes household visits to facilitate broad-based understanding of the project, and during these visits consumer information packs are distributed. Study tours have also been undertaken to areas where the prepayment water meters have already been installed, to provide communities with the opportunity to interact with residents who have first-hand experience of the meters.

It must be stressed that while prepayment meters are the preferred option, households are not obliged to accept them. An alternative option is also provided for the installation of yard standpipes to ensure the continuous supply of free basic water.

This is a labour intensive project, and all local labour is sourced from the community; more than 920 jobs have been created to date. This is part of the broader programme to empower SMMEs (small, medium and micro enterprises) through skills transfer, and to create regional economic efficiencies. About 38% of the construction value has, for example, gone towards local resource participation, exceeding the 25% minimum requirement. Additional community benefits such as vending opportunities and the establishment of local water and sanitation plumbers will also emerge from this project.


The implementation of this project has, however, not been without challenges. A level of organised resistance has been encountered from adversarial lobby groups. Developments since project inception in 2003 have been marred by isolated incidents of intimidation, vandalism and malicious damage to property. These incidents have been used to disrupt public meetings, spread confusion and create tension to thwart the initiatives by JW. Safety and security measures have had to be provided, primarily to protect the workforce and infrastructure.

Despite this, JW continues with the process of community engagements to address issues and concerns. This is done through the public meetings and the involvement of ward councillors. A customer service kiosk has also been established in each local area of implementation, as a facility to lodge complaints or queries, and these are attended to daily. An after-care support team is deployed in the community to conduct household visits after the meters have been installed, as an added mechanism to provide customer service and further entrench the education initiatives.


The first phase of Operation Gcin’amanzi – the successful completion of the prototype in December 2004 – has seen the following results being achieved:

  • 99% of residents have opted for the installation of prepayment meters; only 10 households have opted for the installation of a yard standpipe.
  • Bulk purchase has decreased from 55 to 11kl per stand per month.
  • Sales statistics indicate that on average 64% of customers are using more than 6kl per month, and are therefore making purchases of about R23 (US$4) per month for water and sanitation services, as opposed to the previous flat rate of R128 (US$22) per month.


The first phase of the macro project was launched in July 2004 with the awarding of contracts for Superblocks 1, 2 and 3, comprising about 31,000 stands. Meter installation has already begun in some of the areas, after 84% of residents across the three Superblocks had completed individual customer service agreements indicating acceptance of the meters. Plans are already underway to prepare for the launching of the next phases of the project in the remaining Superblocks.

We expect that a major portion of Johannesburg’s water will be brought under control as the project rollout continues over the next two years. The money saved can then be put to better use, such as the servicing of informal settlements and improving existing services.