At the centre of the water law reform process initiated by the first democratic government of the Republic of South Africa (RSA) lay the challenge of transforming away from apartheid water injustices. Reform culminated in the promulgation of new legislation, regarded internationally as ambitious and forward-thinking legislation reflective of the broad aims of integrated water resource management (IWRM). However, implementation of this legislation has been challenging. This paper analyses institutional dysfunction in water management in the Sundays River Valley Municipality (Eastern Cape Province, RSA). A transdisciplinary approach is taken in addressing the failure of national law and policy to enable the delivery of effective water services in post-apartheid RSA. A case study is used to explore interventions to promote effective water supply, locating these interventions and policies within the legislative structures and frameworks governing the water sector. We suggest that fine-grained institutional analysis together with learning from persistent iterative, adaptive practice, with principled goals intact, offers a pragmatic and achievable alternative to grand-scale policy change.

Introduction

At the centre of the water law reform process initiated by the first democratic government of the Republic of South Africa (RSA) lay the challenge of transforming away from apartheid practices (Rowlston, 2011). This process culminated in the promulgation of the National Water Act (NWA) of 1998 and the Water Services Act of 1997, which are regarded internationally as ambitious and forward-thinking pieces of legislation reflective of the broad aims of integrated water resource management (IWRM) (Schreiner, 2013). The local government sector was also redesigned in the first decade of democracy, with extensive powers and autonomy granted to the sector under a policy of developmental local government (DLG) (Republic of South Africa (RSA), 1998b). Both DLG and IWRM aspire towards decentralised decision-making, participatory governance and management, and the integration of multiple issues that have environmental and social dimensions (including technical and economic). However, both IWRM and DLG have been criticised for implementation failures in post-apartheid RSA (Siddle & Koelble, 2012; Mehta et al., 2014). Addressing these challenges has been made more difficult by the tendency of managers, politicians, and policy-makers in the water sector to focus on ‘improving organisational arrangements and even institutional setups and legislation instead of giving implementation a chance’ (Garduno, 2011: v). The latter critique is particularly relevant given on-going institutional reform in the South African water sector.

This paper analyses institutional dysfunction in water management in the Sundays River Valley Municipality (SRVM), in the Eastern Cape Province of the RSA, using approaches consistent with inter- and trans-disciplinary research practice (Wickson et al., 2006; Bammer, 2013). The particular ‘wicked problem’ (sensuRittel & Webber, 1973) analysed is the failure of law and policy to enable the delivery of effective water services in post-apartheid RSA. A case study is used to explore interventions to promote effective water supply, locating the interventions and policies within the legislative structures and frameworks governing the water sector.

Case study and methodology

The Lower Sundays River Valley (LSRV) is a primarily rural region, characterised by several small towns, large nature reserves, and a commercial irrigated farming sector that is reliant on water transferred into the LSRV from other catchments (Clifford-Holmes, 2015). The local government institution in the region is the SRVM. Over a third of South African municipalities are of a similar size and socio-economic character to the SRVM. Despite this representative quality, in many respects, the SRVM is also an extreme case: in 2010, several national and regional government departments initiated intervention processes into the SRVM, following an extended period of financial mismanagement and bankruptcy in which the provision of water services in the municipality had suffered (Miti, 2012). In contrast, a water user association (WUA; converted from an Irrigation Board in 2003) has effectively managed irrigation water supply to a thriving citrus industry. The evident and abundant river water, used effectively for irrigation, throws into stark relief the hardships of domestic water insecurity at the household level. The LSRV case therefore offers both extreme and representative aspects of the water challenges faced by local authorities in post-apartheid RSA (Clifford-Holmes, 2015), which, following Yin (2009), provided the rationale for employing the ‘single case design’ utilised in the study. A multi-method research approach was employed, drawing on institutional, ethnographic, and systems analyses within an evolving, transdisciplinary methodology (Wickson et al., 2006). As part of the single case study research design, qualitative and quantitative data were collected via participant observation, direct observation, semi-structured interviews, and from documentary and archival sources (sensuYin, 2009). Ethnographic analysis was performed following extended fieldwork in the LSRV, undertaken between 2011 and 2012 (with follow-up visits for workshops and meetings between 2012 and 2015). The combination of this fieldwork and the associated analysis enabled a detailed and multi-layered understanding of local water authorities in the LSRV (Clifford-Holmes, 2015).

The institutional component of the research drew on a range of theory from different disciplines, particularly within natural resource management, the governance of public goods, public administration, and water services (Simon, 2000; Ostrom, 2005; Krause, 2009; Cleaver, 2012). These approaches were explored through an initial literature review and the development of a conceptual framing drawing on useful theoretical and analytical constructs. This conceptual framing (Clifford-Holmes, 2015) was further influenced by a comparative analysis, where the LSRV case was analysed with reference to empirical research exploring institutional dysfunction in South African water management and governance. The resulting analysis is detailed in this paper through the conceptual framing (Section 3); the exploration of institutions using an institutional framework and typology of dysfunction (Section 4); and through the case study itself (Section 5).

Conceptual framing of local water authorities and ‘managing in the muddled middle’

The dynamic institutional context of post-apartheid water management and governance is framed here using complexity-based conceptions of institutional change. Institutions, following Wallis & Ison (2011: 4081), are the ‘established rules, norms, laws and practices and any other arrangement put in place that can influence social change’. A clear distinction is made between ‘institutions’ and ‘organisations’ within institutional theory: organisations are a structured form of institution – such as a government department or a civil society group – but not all institutions are organisations (strategies, programmes, policies, and other arrangements are also institutions). Hence, institutions include more than formal arrangements, but also ‘formal and informal sites of social interaction, negotiation, and contestation across the public, private and voluntary spheres’ (Morrison, 2006: 146). Several institutional perspectives are exemplified across the water sector (Sampford, 2009), with a recognisable spectrum between ‘functionalist’ and ‘managerialist’ perspectives on institutions (emphasising rules, regulations, and incentives) and those theories that conceive of institutions in more ‘processual’ and ‘dynamic’ terms (emphasising agency, power relations, and change) (Mehta et al., 1999). Ostrom (2005, 2010) contributed the widely used Institutional Analysis and Development framework, which distinguishes between different institutional levels of analysis (operational; collective choice; and constitutional). Ostrom has acknowledged the impossibility of performing complete analyses of all real-world institutional settings, recognising that the characteristics of complex, adaptive systems render all analyses as partial and, therefore, as incomplete (see Ostrom, 2005: 270–1). Following Cilliers (2000), the key characteristics of complex, adaptive systems are summarised here as:

  • comprising many interacting components;

  • with non-linear processes;

  • with feedbacks between components and processes;

  • which are influenced by scale (temporal and spatial); and

  • where small changes can lead to large effects (and vice versa).

Mounting empirical evidence shows that simplistic policy prescriptions (like decentralisation and privatisation) inadequately address complex problems, with many of these policy prescriptions failing to take effect as desired (Ostrom, 2010). Attempts to transplant institutional design from one context to another (based on a ‘blueprint’ approach) have also had limited success (Evans, 2004). Recognising these limitations, some scholars call for policy-makers to have more reasonable expectations of institutional design (Cilliers et al., 2013). This perspective takes a systems position that ‘the act of trying to govern/manage/control generates system dynamics of its own’ (Richardson, 2011: 239), emphasising the unintended consequences of interventions into complex systems. Many examples exist of such unintended consequences in the field of Development Studies (Mosse, 2004; Ramalingam et al., 2008), with anthropological fieldwork further highlighting the way in which local agents partially adopt, adapt, resist, and contest policies and programmes (Long & Long, 1992). For Cleaver (2012) and her colleagues, processes of institutional transformation and institutional change are therefore inherently ‘messy’ (Franks & Cleaver, 2007). To explain this messiness, Cleaver (2012) adapts the concept of ‘bricolage’ from its original formulation by the anthropologist Levi-Strauss (1966: 17) – who defined a bricoleur as ‘a kind of professional do-it-yourself person’ – ‘to explain the combination of practical creativity and constraint in processes of institutional formation [in water management]’ (Cleaver, 2012: 33). Rather than understanding agents as simply ‘implementing’ or ‘failing to implement’ programmes or policy in a deterministic manner, agents in Cleaver's framework are conceptualised as (re)interpreting and adapting policy framings to suit their local conditions. This approach is consistent with Agnew's (2011) conceptualisation of the ‘practical politics of waterpower’, which emphasises the strategies of agents in the water sector that can range from conditional cooperation to hard bargaining and from subtle obfuscation to outright conflict.

In summary, schools of institutional thought differ in terms of their conception of ‘the nature and formation of institutions, the nature of decision-making and negotiations within institutions, the models of agency employed, and the factors shaping human behaviour and outcomes' (Clifford-Holmes, 2015: 22). However, a primary commonality between institutional analysts of water management and governance is an interest in what are termed ‘rules-in-form’ versus ‘rules-in-use’ (e.g. Ostrom, 2005; McGinnis, 2011; Cleaver, 2012). Rules-in-form include the way specific institutions are supposed to function, whilst rules-in-use are understood as informal rules and those rules that are adaptively applied in practice. Rather than conceiving of formal and informal institutional domains as distinct from one another, institutions are conceptualised here in such a way that allows for understanding both informal and formal institutional domains. Institutional change within the empirical focus of this study is therefore conceptualised as occurring within the ‘muddled middle’ between formal and informal institutional domains (Figure 1).
Fig. 1.

Conceptual framing showing ‘management in the muddled middle’ between the rules-in-form of governance and the rules-in-use.

Fig. 1.

Conceptual framing showing ‘management in the muddled middle’ between the rules-in-form of governance and the rules-in-use.

Rules-in-form are defined here using Lautze et al.’s (2011) definition of ‘water governance’ as the formalised processes and institutions by which decisions that affect water should be made. Governance is framed as a higher-order set of activities that infiltrates into the more practical, outcomes-oriented processes of operational management (as shown on the left-hand side of Figure 1). Rules-in-use are defined, following Agnew (2011), as the ‘practical politics’ of on-the-ground water management. The fundamental questions of ‘who gets what water, when and how’ (Tropp, 2005: 11) are addressed by agents managing in the ‘muddled middle’. In addressing such questions, managers are influenced by the aspirational policy realm, through formal rules, which are enshrined in laws and enforced through various mechanisms (Figure 1: arrow 1). But managers are also influenced by practical realities on the ground, which constrain and inform the way in which the formal rules and enforcement mechanisms play out in practice.

The iterative processes of policy implementation and adaptive management are illustrated by feedback loop 1 in Figure 1 and are constituted by actual people doing things that (i) directly affect other people (Agnew, 2011) and (ii) affect state variables in the world, which can be anything from stocks of water, to financial budgets, to the overall technical capacity of an engineering department (Ostrom, 2005). Managers' actions in the ‘muddled middle’ affect state variables and interact with stakeholders in a non-linear manner, providing multiple arenas in which managers (as implementing agents) are bricoleurs. In feedback loop 2 (Figure 1), policy-makers are bricoleurs, as they design and redesign the policy frameworks by which the rules-in-form are animated, according to the information they receive from the ‘muddled middle’ about institutional functioning.

This paper next explores the layering of institutions between the policy level of ideals and the operational level of on-the-ground water management in post-apartheid RSA. Out of this analysis, a position is taken on institutional dysfunction in South African water management, which is informed by the conceptual framing of ‘managing in the muddled middle’. The institutional challenges facing local water authorities in the LSRV case study are explored from this position, with policy implications for the wider institutional reform and realignment process raised in the discussion.

Situating local water authorities within post-apartheid policy

Framework of institutional levels

The institutional context of local water authorities is illustrated using a framework of five levels as depicted in Figure 2. Level (i) in Figure 2 – vision – is the set of aspirational principles usually structured in the form of a national constitution or the high-level policies that underpin legislation. Two white papers (Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF), 1997; Republic of South Africa (RSA), 1998b) and a supporting set of ‘Fundamental Principles and Objectives for a New Water Law’ (Republic of South Africa (RSA), 1996b) provided three foundational principles of equity, efficiency, and sustainability (pithily summarised in the slogan ‘some, for all, forever’ (Rowlston, 2011)) that explicitly underpinned the NWA. The South African constitution (Republic of South Africa (RSA), 1996a) asserts that ‘everyone has the right to have access to sufficient water’, and specifies three independent spheres of government (national, provincial, and municipal) that are envisioned as interacting under the principle of ‘cooperative governance’. Whilst national government is the custodian of all water (re)sources, the constitution devolves to local government the responsibility for ensuring that water services are provided to citizens.
Fig. 2.

Framework of institutional levels. The five levels are numbered with Roman numerals ((i) to (v)); the five arrows, listed between square brackets, denote the translation stages between the institutional levels (and are further discussed in relation to Table 1). The right-hand column provides examples of each institutional level from the case study.

Fig. 2.

Framework of institutional levels. The five levels are numbered with Roman numerals ((i) to (v)); the five arrows, listed between square brackets, denote the translation stages between the institutional levels (and are further discussed in relation to Table 1). The right-hand column provides examples of each institutional level from the case study.

Table 1.

Basic typology of institutional dysfunction, with cross-references to Figure 2.

Position Description 
Position 1 Levels (i) to (iv) are fundamentally flawed: ‘grand redesign’ is required in order to address level (v). 
Position 2 Levels (i) to (iv) are fundamentally sound: dysfunction occurs at (v) because of implementation challenges at [d]. 
Position 3 Dysfunction is from (ii) downwards, primarily as a result of [a]. 
Position 4 Dysfunction is primarily caused by [b]. 
Position 5 Dysfunction is primarily related to (iii) and is caused by [c]. 
Position 6 The traditional way in which water policy is designed and implemented is flawed (both philosophically and practically). 
Position Description 
Position 1 Levels (i) to (iv) are fundamentally flawed: ‘grand redesign’ is required in order to address level (v). 
Position 2 Levels (i) to (iv) are fundamentally sound: dysfunction occurs at (v) because of implementation challenges at [d]. 
Position 3 Dysfunction is from (ii) downwards, primarily as a result of [a]. 
Position 4 Dysfunction is primarily caused by [b]. 
Position 5 Dysfunction is primarily related to (iii) and is caused by [c]. 
Position 6 The traditional way in which water policy is designed and implemented is flawed (both philosophically and practically). 
Level (ii) in Figure 2 – organisational architecture – encompasses the formal rules that are structured into legislation (i.e. the rules-in-form). The architectural metaphor is useful for describing the parts of an institution that can be designed and constructed and can therefore be redesigned for new purposes. Five pieces of legislation exemplify rules-in-form, stipulating the establishment of multiple water management institutions in RSA (Figure 2). The primary arrangements between these institutions illustrate what we have termed ‘local water authorities', showing these authorities to be constituted across three sectors: water resources management; water services; and local government (Figure 3).
Fig. 3.

Primary institutional arrangements influencing local water authorities in RSA, with the established institutions relevant to the LSRV case study identified in square brackets. The Department of Water Affairs* (DWA) was renamed as the Department of Water and Sanitation in 2014. The Cacadu District Municipality (CDM*) also changed name in 2014. CoGTA = the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs; EC = Eastern Cape; L-WUA = the Lower Sundays River Water User Association; MEC = Member of the (provincial) Executive Council; SRVM = Sundays River Valley [local] Municipality.

Fig. 3.

Primary institutional arrangements influencing local water authorities in RSA, with the established institutions relevant to the LSRV case study identified in square brackets. The Department of Water Affairs* (DWA) was renamed as the Department of Water and Sanitation in 2014. The Cacadu District Municipality (CDM*) also changed name in 2014. CoGTA = the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs; EC = Eastern Cape; L-WUA = the Lower Sundays River Water User Association; MEC = Member of the (provincial) Executive Council; SRVM = Sundays River Valley [local] Municipality.

The minister and government department responsible for water are designated as custodians of national water resources. Both the NWA (Republic of South Africa (RSA), 1998a) and the Water Services Act (Republic of South Africa (RSA), 1997) are aligned with devolved management and decentralisation. The envisaged institutions for water resource management include catchment management agencies (CMAs) and WUAs. In water management areas where CMAs are not yet established, the NWA requires the Department of Water Affairs (DWA) regional office (DWA-RO) to perform all catchment management duties. For water services, overall authority for providing water services is mandated as a local government function. As the water service authority (WSA), municipalities decide whether to act as water service providers (WSPs) themselves or whether to outsource this role to another agent (Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF), 2003). Water policy frameworks stipulate that local government must institutionally separate the provision and regulatory aspects of its water services. In order to provide criteria to enable self-regulation, the municipality must have a contract between the WSA and WSP. The provision and regulation of water services by local government occur within the broader legislative framework for local government (Figure 3) – overseen by the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA). The legislative framework separates the policy-making, regulatory and service delivery functions of local government both vertically – from national to local government – and horizontally – i.e. between sectors of local government (Clifford-Holmes, 2015). However, a vast difference exists between the organisational architecture for local water authorities (in terms of how local-level water management and water service provision are supposed to function and interrelate) and how, in practice, these structures and functions are governed and subsequently managed.

The third level of the institutional framework (Figure 2) – regulatory and operational mechanisms (iii) – comprises the specifications of standards and procedures in relation to the rules-in-form. Collectively, these mechanisms are designed to assist with institutional implementation (examples of which include codes of regulations and norms and standards, such as the Compulsory National Standards for Quality Water Services (Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF), 2002b), and implementation guidelines, such as the Strategic Framework for Water Services (Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF), 2003)).

The fourth institutional level – established institutions (iv) – incorporates statutorily defined institutions that are both constituted and operational. This institutional level is consistent with what Ostrom (2005: 58) refers to as the ‘collective choice level’, which is ‘the level at which operational activities and results are affected’. Examples from the case study include the DWA-RO; the regional water board: Amatola Water; the SRVM; and the Lower Sundays River Water User Association (L-WUA).

The final level is ‘operational manifestations' (v). In theoretical terms, this is the level at which rules ‘affect the day-to-day decisions made by the participants' (Ostrom, 2005: 58). Here, operational breakdowns are understood as manifestations of mismatches between the required operational tasks (as reified in the institutional arrangements between levels (i)–(iv)) and messy, complex reality. Two prominent operational manifestations in the LSRV case were the non-provision of basic quantities of potable (i.e. drinking-quality) water and informal operational agreements between key actors (Figure 2, and Section 5). A typology of institutional dysfunction is now used to analyse LSRV operational manifestations.

Institutional dysfunction

The typology presented in Table 1 identifies six analytical positions that can be taken on the location of the primary causes of institutional dysfunction (which are related to the institutional levels in Figure 2). Although these positions are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive, we consider the typology to capture an appropriately wide range of the institutional critiques of local water authorities in RSA.

Position 1 of the typology takes the perspective that institutional levels (i) to (iv) are fundamentally flawed and therefore require ‘grand redesign’ in order to address dysfunction at (v). This was the position taken by the Water Law Review Panel, which was established in 1995 by the Minister of Water Affairs in the first post-apartheid dispensation (see Rowlston, 2011), and is vulnerable to the critique that persistence in implementation is required (Garduno, 2011).

In asserting that institutional levels (i) to (iv) are fundamentally sound, Position 2 of the typology offers the alternative perspective that a host of implementation challenges at [d] cause the dysfunction at level (v) and, as a result, implementation must be given a chance. This was the case made by CoGTA in 2009 with the publication of its ‘Local Government Turnaround Strategy’ (Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA), 2009).

Position 3 takes the perspective that dysfunction is primarily caused by point [a], in terms of the way that level (i) – vision – is translated into level (ii) – organisational architecture. Examples include those analysts who have critiqued the choice of making local government the epicentre of state-driven development (e.g. de Visser, 2005; Schmidt, 2008) and, similarly, the feasibility of making WUAs ‘vehicles for transformation’ (Kemerink et al., 2013). Another exemplar of position 3 is the critique that the manifest inadequacy of local government turnaround strategies (e.g. Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA), 2009) demonstrates a ‘failure of decentralisation in South Africa’ caused by over-complicated institutional design (e.g. Siddle & Koelble, 2012).

Position 4 of Table 1 locates dysfunction in the failure to establish statutorily defined institutions that are both constituted and operational. An obvious example of this deficiency is the establishment of only 2 of the 19 intended CMAs (Schreiner, 2013). As a result of this slow initiation of catchment-scale resource management, the DWA-RO in the Eastern Cape Province (for example) has had primary responsibility for all catchment management functions.

Position 5 of Table 1 locates dysfunction in the multiple mechanisms that exist to support and regulate the translation of organisational architecture into established institutions. Hence, position 5 represents the perspective that institutional dysfunction is primarily related to level (iii) of Figure 2, either in the translation of organisational architecture into regulatory and operational mechanisms, or in the effect of such mechanisms on established institutions, or both. Exemplars of these mechanisms include implementation frameworks and guides, such as frameworks for local government to ‘implement IWRM linked to water service delivery’ (e.g. Haigh et al., 2010); the Regulatory Performance Management System; and the incentive-based regulatory programmes for drinking-water management (known as ‘Blue Drop’) and waste-water management (known as ‘Green Drop’) (Department of Water Affairs (DWA), 2013b).

Position 6 holds that the traditional way in which water policy is designed and implemented has typically failed to recognise that all interventions into complex, adaptive systems are limited and contingent, hence, that ‘wisdom in decision making is vastly more important – not just practically, but philosophically – than knowledge’ (Taleb, 2012: 152). According to analysts working from this broad position, the aim should be ‘requisitely simple’ policy designs in which the limitations are recognised and understood, rather than complex designs that are not understood (Stirzaker et al., 2010). Examples of requisitely simple approaches in the South African water sector include the process flow diagrams (and associated analyses) posited by Du Plessis (2014) and the process of strategic adaptive management (SAM) (Pollard et al., 2008; Rogers & Luton, 2011). Rather than attempting to implement policies according to the rules-in-form and associated mechanisms, SAM advocates managing resources in sympathy with the vision and principles (level (i) Figure 2) and in accordance with the local operating conditions of on-the-ground water management. As such, position 6 (Table 1) represents the perspective of ‘managing in the muddled middle’ (Figure 1).

Two examples of operational manifestations of institutional dysfunction (level (v) Figure 2), as experienced in the LSRV case study, are described in the following section from the perspective of ‘managing in the muddled middle’. The policy implications for the wider institutional review and reform process are then discussed at the end.

Operational manifestations

Operational manifestation 1

A key institutional reform in the post-apartheid era was the requirement for irrigation boards to transform into WUAs. This reform recognised that in rural and semi-rural areas of RSA, previously advantaged irrigation boards had the best-developed water supply infrastructure and institutional capacity, which ideally could be put to the service of the newly established municipalities, to enable and support the municipal mandate of ensuring that potable water is provided to all citizens. However, legal and policy reform, with insufficient investment in institutional processes of transformation, has given rise to a new name for irrigation boards but, generally, a retention of entrenched power in respect of water supply (Brown, 2011; Kemerink et al., 2013). As a statutory body, an established WUA requires ministerial ratification and, once ratified, it carries the following typical functions: the construction, operation and maintenance of water supply infrastructure; the prevention of water wastage or contamination; the prevention of unlawful water use; and the regulation of flow in a watercourse. The NWA stipulates that membership of a WUA is voluntary and that the association should be governed by a constitution, which, once adopted, is binding on all its members. A Management Committee oversees the functioning of the WUA and appoints staff to manage the day-to-day business and operations of the organisation (Republic of South Africa (RSA), 1998a).

In the LSRV case, the Sundays River Irrigation Board converted to the L-WUA in 2003. The structure of the Management Committee included elected farmers (both ‘emerging’ black farmers and established white farmers) and nominated members from four sub-districts. As one of the water users in the L-WUA's operational area, the SRVM is entitled to representation on the L-WUA Management Committee. When research engagement began in the LSRV in 2011, the nominated municipal members had attended <10% of L-WUA Management Committee meetings in the preceding 8 years (Clifford-Holmes, 2015). For the L-WUA, acting according to the mandates of the NWA, this indicated lack of interest and responsibility by the municipality. The SRVM representatives, who did not feel welcome in the L-WUA offices for historical reasons, took the position that the L-WUA was bound by the Water Services Act (and the range of local government legislation introduced in Section 4) to provide water for domestic consumption as an absolute priority (it is noteworthy that whilst the NWA prioritises water for basic human use, it does not do so specifically in relation to the responsibilities of WUAs). The individual officials in the SRVM and the L-WUA did not know each other and each group took a ‘reasonable’ and adversarial position in terms of selected legislation. The adversarial positions became particularly problematic in the Kirkwood region, which had experienced a rapid increase in domestic consumption between 2005 and 2009 that had not been compensated for by increasing the capacity of the bulk supply scheme operated by the SRVM (Clifford-Holmes et al., 2015). This situation resulted in water demand outstripping available water supply, manifesting in increasing water shortages across the town of Kirkwood and the surrounding suburbs (Ndoni, 2009). A ‘blame game’ between the SRVM and the L-WUA ensued as to who was responsible for addressing these water supply shortages.

Researcher-facilitated meetings between relevant stakeholders explored and represented the complicated, overlapping legislative requirements (as shown in Figure 3) through an action research process. Institutional analysis revealed that a lack of agreements existed between the organisations to support operational arrangements (such as the SRVM providing timely notice to the L-WUA for specific volumes of water to be released from the irrigation canals into the municipal water supply scheme). The situation was aggravated by a combination of infrastructural and operational capacities that were lacking in the Kirkwood water supply scheme, including:

  1. inadequate storage capacity;

  2. inadequate pumping capacity between reservoirs and components; and

  3. the operational regime of the water treatment works, in terms of limited operational hours and in terms of the SRVM lacking a full complement of operators.

Towards the end of the active research process, and once it was clear that formal service-level agreements between the L-WUA and the SRVM would strengthen institutional capacity for water delivery, officials from the L-WUA and the SRVM met with the DWA-RO. The DWA officials indicated that they had a template for such an agreement. After protracted delays it became clear that no such templates existed – so there was no administrative pathway for formalising institutional arrangements between WUAs and municipalities.

Lack of institutional clarity within the SRVM proved to be a compounding issue. In mid-2009, the SRVM reviewed its capacity to perform the WSP function, and resolved to continue performing this (Sundays River Valley Municipality (SRVM), 2010: 7). The decision was taken at a time of significant water and sanitation challenges in the midst of a financial recovery plan. However, the SRVM did not implement the institutional separation between its WSA and its water services provision functions that are required under legislation. This institutional conflation made the service provision and regulation roles of the SRVM inseparable. One of the damaging implications of this is explored in the second operational manifestation.

Operational manifestation 2

The second operational manifestation also centres on issues related to unreliable potable water supply, which manifest in the legal and institutional context. As noted earlier, the right to water is enshrined in the Constitution and structured in the rules-in-form governing water in RSA. The operational and regulatory mechanisms translate these priorities into a minimum requirement of 25 litres (l) of potable water of acceptable quality, per capita, per day (l/c/d) (Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF), 2002a). A further safety mechanism (in the form of ‘Compulsory National Standards’) establishes that a WSA must ensure that alternative water services (comprising at least 10 l/c/d) are provided to consumers as ‘emergency water’, when water services are interrupted for a period of >24 hours (Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF), 2002a). The ad hoc nature of emergency water delivery (EWD), which often entails trucks delivering water on a street-by-street basis, means that the cost of EWD is many times higher than the cost of providing the same basic quantities of potable water via the conventional reticulation system. Other conditions that influence EWD, explored in Clifford-Holmes (2015) in relation to the SRVM, include:

  1. the availability of technical and institutional capacity within the municipality for EWD (in the form of dedicated delivery mechanisms);

  2. the level of awareness within the WSA of the regulatory requirements for EWD;

  3. the capability of elected municipal councillors (as representatives of political parties and residents) to hold the municipal managers (including technical and financial officials) to account for effective EWD;

  4. the strength of civil society (to place pressure on the above-mentioned councillors); and

  5. the regulatory capacity of the DWA-RO for ensuring that EWD occurs at the required minimum levels (along with the capacity of the DWA-RO to impose sanctions for non-delivery).

Molony (2015) recorded water supply interruptions across the SRVM that exceed the conditions stipulated in the ‘Compulsory National Standards’ for requiring EWD. Yet the SRVM undertook only minor EWD between 2011 and the first quarter of 2015. Although the Compulsory National Standards clearly stipulate that a WSA must have a back-up plan for EWD, the municipality had no such plan. Furthermore, the lack of separation between WSA and WSP functions resulted in no financing being made available for EWD. The lack of water demand management measures led to an unmitigated increase in water demand, which the municipality responded to by using infrastructure above its design capacity at the same time as neglecting to undertake the requisite maintenance (these interconnected factors are described as the ‘modes of failure of South African local government’ in Clifford-Holmes et al. (2015)). The ultimate manifestation of citizen dissatisfaction over this situation occurred in September 2014, when residents burned municipal offices to the ground, citing inadequate and unreliable potable water supply as a key issue (South African Press Association| (SAPA), 2014). Legal and regulatory provisions, as well as extensive government-led interventions in the SRVM dating back to 2010, proved inadequate to prevent civil unrest. The following section draws on the conceptual framing of ‘managing in the muddled middle’ and the complexity-based understanding of institutional dysfunction in order to analyse these two operational manifestations in relation to the on going institutional reform and realignment process in RSA.

Discussion

The National Water Policy Review (NWPR) has asserted revised policy positions on the roles and responsibilities of both WUAs and municipalities (Department of Water Affairs (DWA), 2013a). With regard to WUAs, the NWPR stated that:

It is recognised… that old irrigation boards have often failed to meaningfully transform to WUAs and participate in or achieve the transformation goals of the NWA. Transformed Irrigation Boards have also failed in achieving the adequate participation of other users such as municipalities’ (Department of Water Affairs (DWA), 2013a: 19).

The NWPR recommended that all WUAs should therefore be dissolved, with the appropriate functions being delegated to other institutions (some of which have yet to become established institutions as per level (iv) of Figure 2). The LSRV case highlights an institutional component of the ‘failures of transformation’ between WUAs and municipalities. The Strategic Framework for Water Services (Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF), 2003) (amongst other mechanisms) requires arrangements between external agencies and municipalities to stipulate the terms of delivery and the roles and responsibilities of the respective parties (particularly if the water is intended for use as potable water). The proposed dissolution of WUAs can be construed as operating from Position 1 of Table 1 (in favour of ‘grand redesign’). Yet this position has (to date) appeared only to entrench immobility and not offered ways for substantive institutional change to influence operational realities in the LSRV.

The SRVM case also suggests that the interconnected modes of failures (experienced with EWD) are linked to the framework of DLG underpinning municipal legislation. The framework aims to empower local citizens to participate in, and benefit from, improved services that are delivered by increasingly skilled and efficient local WSPs (Mackay & Ashton, 2004), with the potential institutional benefits including:

  1. decreasing reliance on national government and external agents for support and interventions (other than for regulation, funding and oversight purposes);

  2. empowerment of service delivery agents to become independent problem-solvers; and

  3. empowerment of end-users to actively participate in the negotiations and consultations for target-setting, with improved service delivery motivating for greater participation.

The violent protests in Kirkwood demonstrate that local residents in the SRVM perceive service delivery to be declining in quality: rather than a virtuous cycle leading to increasing participation, these residents seem stuck in a vicious cycle of decreasing participation culminating in extreme dissatisfaction. The ‘modes of failure’, within which the SRVM officials appear to be caught, indicate that they too are stuck in a vicious cycle leading to increasing, rather than decreasing, reliance on national government and external agents. Hence, the adaptive management feedbacks (as described in Figure 1) do not appear evident in the SRVM. A further reason why these feedbacks are inadequately enforced is the capacity of the regulator. In the Eastern Cape Province, the sub-directorate of ‘Water Services Technical Regulation, Compliance and Enforcement’ of the national DWAs oversees the WSA and WSP functions of local municipalities, including the SRVM. Clifford-Holmes (2015) reports that as of July 2012, only 2 out of 33 posts in this sub-directorate were filled (which is indicative of human resource constraints through the South African water sector (South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE), 2013)). The various regulatory failures in the LSRV case are more understandable given these staffing deficits (including the failure to regulate the institutional separation of the different water-related functions in the SRVM; the lack of capacity to support the development of an arrangement between the SRVM and the L-WUA; and the failure to enforce EWD).

Conclusion

This paper has described and analysed examples of operational dysfunction as indicators of institutional dysfunction. An institutional framing of post-apartheid water policy was used to show that at a fundamental level, post-apartheid policy in RSA is sound: the rules-in-form embrace systemic governance, and the vision and organisational architecture (levels (i) and (ii) of Figure 2, respectively) are derived from suitable core principles (sustainability, equity and efficiency). But the operational and regulatory mechanisms (level (iii) of Figure 2), along with the capacities to adequately utilise these mechanisms, are limited and prone to failure. The implication of this analysis is that investing in processes that build relationships and trust, which are strengthened by flexible, locally negotiated service-level agreements, could provide a more nimble and adaptive way forward than ‘grand redesign’. The action research process in the LSRV achieved some success in using this approach with local stakeholders, but the process failed to result in operational amendments (partly because of its reliance on existing templates for institutional arrangements between municipalities and WUAs being available). In this respect, SAM offers some promise: SAM enables implementing agents to develop as bricoleurs within their own contexts and advocates managing resources in sympathy with the vision and principles (level (i) of Figure 2) and in accordance with the local operating conditions of on-the-ground water management. A contribution of this paper has been to position adaptive management within an understanding of ‘managing in the muddled middle’ (Figure 1). Research into cases like the LSRV (which has representative and extreme characteristics of operational manifestations of institutional dysfunction) could offer ways of learning more about ‘managing in the muddled middle’. Iteratively probing, with managers in the ‘muddled middle’, the adequacy of feedback loops with responsive actions arising from monitoring, could offer ways of adapting to the inevitably wide range of external constraints affecting systems of concern. Crucially, this approach depends on the willingness of participants to engage in relationship building and to persist in iterative, adaptive practice, which in itself is a considerable challenge. Redrafting water legislation (and concomitantly dissolving established institutions) would, however, simply delay the hard work needed to build appropriate institutions that are actively adaptive.

Acknowledgements

The South Africa Netherlands Research Programme for Alternatives in Development; the Mandela Rhodes Foundation; the National Research Foundation; and the Water Research Commission – for financial support; the Sundays River Valley Municipality; the Lower Sundays River Water User Association; Amatola Water; and members of the Eastern Cape Rapid Response Unit of the Department of Water Affairs [now the Department of Water and Sanitation] – for research participation.

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