In democracies across the world today, access to clean drinking water is a basic human right.
In 2010 the United Nations voted to expand the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to include the right to clean water.
Governments who supported this, like ours, commit to ensuring that people can enjoy “sufficient, safe, accessible and affordable water, without discrimination”.
When something goes wrong, as is inevitable in any country, and water access is interrupted, these governments have a duty to resolve the problem without delay and reconnect people as soon as humanly possible.
Being stuck without water is not simply an inconvenience.
For families to survive without water for days on end is dangerous, even life-threatening.
With this in mind we recall that by last Friday, some parts of Gauteng had gone without water not for just days – they were near the end of their third week of dry taps and empty toilet cisterns.
How this crisis in Gauteng unfolded offers us the most compelling example in recent times of how closely linked good governance is to basic human rights.
The water crisis started on 15 September when an electricity outage caused the Rand Water pump station at Eikenhof to stop pumping water.
This affected the southern and western parts of Johannesburg, Krugersdorp and the south-western parts of Tshwane, including Centurion, Laudium and Erasmia.
A rare electricity outage can occur anywhere for a variety of reasons. But this would normally be where the back-up substation would kick in. Except that the back-up substation for Eikenhof had been “out of service” since November last year because nobody had bothered to fix or replace the faulty equipment.
And just as things at Eikenhof were beginning to recover, Gauteng’s second key pump station – the one at Palmiet – stopped pumping water.
Palmiet supplies water to large parts of Ekurhuleni, including Germiston, Tsakane, Brakpan and Boksburg – an industry-heavy region with high-density residential areas.
Everyone from the Minister to the Mayor told us the collapse of Palmiet, as a second major water supply source in Gauteng, was due to cable theft.
Cable theft in our context is also a foreseeable crisis, and with proper pre-planning should not cause indefinite disruptions.
In this case, again, there was an inadequate back-up plan.
Inadequate is an under-statement. The truth is Rand Water’s back-up capacity covers them for exactly one hour in the event of an outage. Anything longer than that, and the pumps cut out.
To top it off, Rand Water claims they cannot afford back-up generators.
Their “plan” to provide the residents of Gauteng with water, ironically depends on an uninterrupted supply of electricity from Eskom and Joburg City Power — and we all know what a risky assumption that is! It is impossible to mitigate a risk by taking an even bigger risk.
If something goes wrong with the electricity supply, Gauteng must rely on it being fixed within the hour — or they will find themselves without either electricity or water.
And when the taps don’t run, then nothing runs – not households, not businesses, not schools, not hospitals.
In Gauteng, the water crisis affected at least three hospitals. Schools also had to shut down. Communities were left to find their own solutions, such as identifying residents with boreholes to help supply their neighbours.
The extraordinary ingenuity of South Africans who always “make a plan” to deal with a crisis, tends to let government off the hook, time and again. But no society can flourish without a competent government.
If a metro like Ekurhuleni wants to live up to its much vaunted promise of a 21st century “Aerotropolis”, someone has to start running it like one.
Because when the water crisis reached them, they started scrambling to find water tankers to dispatch to the problem areas but, of their nine tankers, only two were operational.
The response by the Gauteng ANC and the National Department to this water crisis has been nothing short of disastrous. It reflects a failure of maintenance, a failure of risk management, a failure of planning, and a failure of disaster management.
For a start, no one seemed to do anything until the problem became a full blown crisis. And after dozens of suburbs across three metros had been dry for days, the local government’s first instinct was to deny the severity of the problem.
Then there was also the inevitable blame game with Eskom, Rand Water and the ANC provincial and local governments playing “pass the parcel” and pointing fingers everywhere but themselves.
Rand Water issued its first public statement a full 6 days into the water crisis.
Then 10 days into the crisis, Premier David Makhura – the man in Gauteng who should be most on top of the situation – told SAPA “people are sending me Twitter messages and SMSes”. He said he would get a report on “what the real problem is and what the source of the apparent water supply problem is”.
And then finally, 14 days into the crisis, Minister Nomvula Mokonyane said the reason that thousands of people still had no water at all was just due to a “technical glitch”.
But while this was happening, no one thought to tell the residents in affected areas why they had no water, what was being done to fix this, and when they could expect to turn on their taps again.
It is true that all South African cities are vulnerable to cable theft. And we agree that this should be classified as economic sabotage. But that is why it is so essential to have back-up plans that can be implemented quickly and efficiently.
The Western Cape, like all other regions in the world, experiences occasional supply disruptions. The question is: how are they managed, and do the back-up plans work?
Yesterday, 300 houses and 4 farms outside Vredenburg, on the West Coast suffered a water supply disruption, from 07h00 till 15h00. By the time I became aware of it, the back-up plan was in full swing, and the problem fixed.
Competent governments pay as much attention to maintenance as to building new infrastructure, despite the challenges of urbanization. In Cape Town, for example over R200 million a year is spent on maintaining and replacing aging infrastructure.
And 82% of the City’s water treatment plants are self-powered through water turbines, making them independent of Eskom or the City Electricity Department.
And the first sign of a crisis activates an approved Disaster Risk Management plan in the event of any unexpected supply emergency.
Water security planning is an essential part of development and economic growth, especially in South Africa’s industrial heartland in the metros of Ekurhuleni, Tshwane and Johannesburg.
Our incredible South African capacity to “make a plan” in any crisis must not blind us to the critical importance of competent government, particularly at local level.
We have to get the basics right. That is why the 2016 local government elections will be the moment of truth for our cities and, through them, for the future of South Africa’s economy.