The Department of Water and Sanitation is to start rationing and restricting bulk water supply to municipalities in debt.
Water and sanitation minister Nomvula Mokonyane on Wednesday said that 25 of the 30 municipalities had been in contact with the department to agree on a plan to pay back their debt.
Of those, only 11 municipalities had made any payment towards their debts by the December 8 deadline.
However, those that failed to engage with the department before the deadline will now face "rationed restriction".
"We must make it clear that the department will not cut water supply, but may throttle the pressure at which we supply bulk water, to ensure that citizens are provided with the minimal allocation of water as dictated by the Constitution," Mokonyane said.
Basic water supply
"South African standards relating to a 'basic' water supply is defined as 25 litres of water per person, per day. This is regarded as sufficient to promote healthy living."
This provision ensured that households and citizens have access to their constitutionally guaranteed basic level of supply, while forcing municipalities to meet their financial obligations, she said.
The 30 municipalities owe a combined R10.6-billion to the department's Water Trading Entity (WTE) and various water boards in each province.
Since Mokonyane's initial threat to cut off water two weeks ago, only R213-million had been paid to the water boards, and R55.5-million to the WTE. Future commitments amount to another R300-million.
"There are municipalities that have raised disputes with some portions of the debt owed," Mokonyane said.
"To this end, we have agreed on a process to be followed in resolving debt under dispute and separating it from the main debt, to allow for a commencement of payment on the undisputed portions of the debt."
For those cases that have been challenged by businesses and households in court, the department would wait for the court's ruling before commencing with "rationing".
Mokonyane conceded that the actions were serious, but maintained that the department faced no choice, as nonpayment would further escalate the problem.
"In the six months from March to September 2017, the debt owed has increased by R739-million. This would translate to an annual debt increase of close to R1.5-billion if no action is taken urgently."
She urged the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs and the South African Local Government Association to help municipalities ease their burgeoning debt crises, and stop the cycle of defaulting.