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.