The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the need for water and sanitation in informal settlements. The South African government has put measures in place to respond to this need by providing water tanks to water scarce areas. Water and sanitation are key to a health environment. The  mandate of the Department of Human Settlements and Water and Sanitation (hereafter referred to as the Department) is to provide water and sanitation and to create suitable living environments in informal settlements. There is slow progress in provision of water and sanitation in informal settlements and upgrading of informal settlements in general for a number of reasons including failures or incapacities in delivery at local government level in addition to inadequate resources. Sustainable solutions for provision of water and sanitation in informal settlements will require the Department to allocate adequate resources towards water and sanitation with a clear budgeting line within the Department of Human Settlements. 


As we approach the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) later this month, it is necessary to reflect, on what a responsive budget for human settlements should achieve regarding upgrading of informal settlements and improving the living conditions of the poor through provision of water and sanitation. The MTBPS communicates policy direction and encourages parliament and the public to debate options for the economy and public finance. Budgeting is undertaken with the goal of improving the welfare of the citizens, especially those in less privileged positions in society. Informal settlements manifest extreme poverty and inequality and therefore require a clear stance in policy and targeted budget allocation towards water and sanitation within a long-term and sustainable perspective. More than 5 million South Africans live in informal settlements in a country where 43% of the population has no access to clean water.

Since 2004, with the introduction of the Breaking New Ground Policy, upgrading of informal settlements has been the focus of the Department as a way of addressing challenges in informal settlements. Budgeting for informal settlements has over the years been shifting between committing to a conditional grant for informal settlements and reprioritizing funds within existing grants like the Human Settlements Development Grant and/or the Urban Settlements Development Grant. Reprioritising within existing grants has implications of sharing the funds allocated to upgrading with other human settlements programmes and therefore leaves limited funds for upgrading. The Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) undertook a Budget Analysis which outlined a continued decline in human settlements budgets over the past five years. This is detrimental to the execution of human settlements programmes. The consequence of budget cuts are delays or failure by the Department to deliver on their mandate. The Department will not succeed in ensuring the realization of housing rights through providing housing for the destitute and vulnerable, improving living conditions of people living informal settlements, social housing and provision of water and sanitation. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenges of those living in informal settlements as the virus spreads faster where access to water and good sanitation is limited. Informal settlement dwellers are more vulnerable to COVID-19 as it is also not easy to practice social distancing and self-quarantine.  An effective and quick response to improving the living conditions of informal settlements is, therefore key to curbing the spread of COVID-19. The Department allocated R4.6 billion from the Human Settlements Development Grant and Urban Settlements Development Grant for de-congesting informal settlements. Adjusted allocations were also made which included R2.4 billion in Urban Settlements Development Grant to metropolitan municipalities to provide water and sanitation in informal settlements and cover increased costs of frequent waste management. The pandemic presents an opportunity for the Department to consider more sustainable solutions in addressing the developmental needs of informal settlements. The Department must ensure that the upgrading for informal settlements is well resourced in order to reflect government commitment to improving the living standards of informal settlements.

Two key areas must be focused on in order to address challenges in informal settlements beyond COVID-19; tightening informal settlements policy and targeted budget allocation on provision of water and sanitation in informal settlements. Regarding policy, a combination of both in situ upgrading and relocation when necessary has been used over the years to create habitable environments in informal settlements. The former aims at improving the living conditions in informal settlements by improving existing structures and providing water and sanitation and electricity without moving the people. The latter involves moving the people from their location to a new location, often to Temporary Residential Areas (TRAs), where they wait for the construction of permanent structures. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed, on the one hand, an increased need for the supply of water and sanitation in informal settlements, on the other hand, a call from the Minister of Human Settlements for relocation of people from informal settlements, also called de-densification in order to decongest informal settlements. The latter is often faced with challenges of resistance from the community as people are moved away from the source of livelihoods and networks that sustain their social and economic lives. Additionally, it requires more resources related to land access.

Resource allocation for informal settlements programmes must therefore reflect where the Department’s primary focus lies between relocation and in situ upgrading while ensuring effective adequate supply of water and sanitation. Relocation comes with the need to create Temporary Residential Areas (TRAs) meant to house people after relocation as they wait for the provision of permanent shelter. The TRAs unwittingly become permanent as the Department often fail to provide permanent housing solutions. The Socio-Economic Research Institute (SERI) raised concerns that the TRCs do not meet the standards of adequate shelter and therefore do not meet the housing needs of the people. Access to urban land must be central to informal settlements where relocation takes place. The expansion of informal settlements through land occupations reflect the need for urban land for shelter purposes. Budget allocation should therefore be directed also at acquiring urban land for the purpose of providing shelter to the urban poor. If the Department commit fully to both in situ upgrading and relocation, it is necessary to increase resource allocations towards that as areas of priority.


As the MTBPS is fast approaching, it is recommended that the government consider budgeting primarily for improving the welfare of those that live in informal settlements by channeling resources towards sustainable ways of providing water and sanitation to, acquiring and releasing land for development of shelter for the urban poor. This can be achieved by allocating adequate resources towards providing permanent solutions for water and sanitation. Where relocation takes places, the Department must ensure there is access to adequate land and TRCs, although meant to be temporary must provide adequate shelter.

Esteri Msindo: Human Settlements Researcher
Public Service Accountability Monitor