Cape Town - Water Affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica on Tuesday ruled out any increase in water tariffs in the near future, but indicated her department is massively under-funded.
"I want to allay the fears of South Africans that there is not in the near future a possibility of a hike. It's not in the pipeline," she told a media briefing at parliament.
Sonjica said any water tariff increase would have to go through an "extensive" consultation process before it could be enforced.
"We are a participatory democracy. Any matter related to a hike of a water tariff has to go through an extensive consultation process... with all of the water users of South Africa."
However, her department was looking at tariff policy.
"[This] is a very fragmented policy. So we are changing the policy. Even this will go under extensive scrutiny before we reach consensus, and the last place for that policy will be cabinet.
"So for now, the tariff hike is not on the cards."
But responding to a question on the size of her department's budget allocation over the next three years - about R27bn between 2010/11 and 2012/13 - Sonjica said she was hoping this would increase.
"We are making the point that water is a catalyst to all problems related to poverty [and] development. We are making sure that message is appreciated, and we hope that will translate into a bigger budget."
Her department is facing huge challenges and costs associated with the replacement of ageing water and sanitation infrastructure, a critical skills shortage, especially in rural areas, and rising demand for water from industrial projects.
Asked just how big a budget the department would need over the next three years to ideally cope with these challenges, Sonjica replied: "More than R100bn."
Speaking at the briefing, water affairs deputy director general Cornelius Ruiters confirmed that illegal abstraction of water by farmers was on the rise.
"Illegal water use is one of the challenges of South Africa, particularly in the upper Vaal [River]... It is calculated to be about 250 million cubic metres of water [a year] out of the Vaal system alone.
"It's having a direct downstream effect on other water users," he told journalists, adding that the problem was a main focus area of the department.
It was a problem not just confined to the Vaal system.
Municipal debt on the rise
"It's also in the Mokolo system [in Limpopo], we have it in the Berg River in the Western Cape, and also, to an extent, in the Olifants River catchment in Mpumalanga," he said.
The briefing also heard that the amount of money South Africa's cash-strapped rural municipalities now owe water boards - which supply them with bulk water - has apparently risen sharply.
"The [total] amount owed by municipalities to water boards: they are owed R1.6bn," water affairs acting director general Nobubele Ngele said in response to a question.
In a written reply to a parliamentary question earlier in April, her minister said the amount owed by municipalities was R1.26bn.
Sonjica also announced a further delay - this time a short one - in the release of the long-awaited Green Drop Report, a survey of sanitation and treatment works around the country.
The report was to have been released on April 19.
"It will now be released on April 28," Sonjica said, adding that the delay was due to an overseas conference trip she had to undertake.