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Recently we have spoken at length about the threat that load-shedding poses to our economy and our ability to create jobs. Unstable and unpredictable electricity is one of the biggest inhibitors of growth in South Africa, and a red flag to potential investors.
Looking back at the events and decisions that led to the current electricity crisis, we know that it came about due to a lack of planning, a lack of maintenance, a lack of skills and poor budgeting.
You’d think we’d be extra vigilant in preventing similar crises developing elsewhere, now that we can see the damaging effects of load-shedding. But the reality is, we are witnessing the exact same failures that crippled our electricity grid – infrastructure neglect, inadequate budgeting and a crippling skills shortage – unfold in the management of our water infrastructure.
Unless we act quickly and decisively, South Africa could soon face the prospect of planned water cuts to ease the pressure on our resources. And water-shedding could make load-shedding look comparatively tame.
Unlike electricity, there is no alternative source or replacement for water.
We are one of a few countries in the world where the right to clean water is enshrined in the Constitution, but this isn’t reflected by South Africa’s track record of water delivery. Barely a week goes by without communities across the country – from Mpumalanga to KZN to the North West – protesting for clean water.
In Madibeng, in the North West Province, some residents have gone for three years without water. These people still receive accounts from the municipality for water and sewage.
Last year, during one of Madibeng’s water protests, four people were shot dead. Spurred into action, the Department of Water and Sanitation launched an investigation and released a report which revealed that “there may be 15 to 20 municipalities like Madibeng affecting more than 100 water supply systems where the management of water services has deteriorated to such an extent that a water crisis is imminent.”
South Africa is facing a water crisis, and we need our government prioritise this.
We are a dry country. In fact, we are ranked the 30th driest in the world, with only 8.6% of our rainwater available as surface water. And because of the way our water resources are geographically distributed, we have a real challenge in matching up supply and demand.
On top of this, our water infrastructure is insufficient, ageing and neglected. The average water loss across our municipalities – which includes losses in pipes, inaccurate meter readings and unauthorised consumption – stands at 36%. In terms of water revenue, this amounts to a loss of more than R7 billion per year.
In the City of Cape Town, following extensive infrastructure maintenance and improvements, this number came down to 14.5% in 2013. In Johannesburg, the water loss percentage is more than double this due to leaks and a widespread culture of non-payment.
The first and most obvious issue that needs to be addressed is the insufficient budget set aside for fixing and maintaining our water infrastructure, coupled with the fact that much of the existing budget simply goes unspent (the Department of Water and Sanitation failed to spend R2.1 billion of its 2014/2015 Regional Bulk Infrastructure Grants).
Last year the government indicated that new water and sanitation infrastructure will take a capital investment of R670 billion over the next ten years. This year, they revised that estimate to R850 billion. But only 43% of this has been allocated.
When we asked the Minister how the Department hoped to make up the massive shortfall, her answer was vague, saying that “partnerships with financial institutions are vigorously pursued”. In other words, she’s going to ask banks for loans. But no bank will lend money to a bankrupt municipality.
In fact, these municipalities are the biggest obstacle to efficient water delivery in South Africa.
The largest polluter of our water is not mining, manufacturing or any of the big industries. It is these dysfunctional municipalities themselves – their neglected water treatment plants end up pumping sewage straight back into our rivers and dams.
At the Rooiwal treatment plant in Tshwane, 108 megalitres of raw sewage sludge is being spilled into the Apies River every day. Livestock in the area are dying and boreholes over 100m deep are polluted. Criminal charges have been laid against the municipal manager, but a victory in court won’t reverse the pollution.
It is clear that many of these municipalities simply do not have the the managerial, technical or budgetary skills to provide this critical service. In the interest of their residents, it is necessary that they lose their status as Water Service Authorities and that this responsibility be entrusted to competent water boards.
When it comes to the critical skills shortage in the public sector, it is crucial that the minister engages with the various engineering bodies that represent over 25 000 members across the country. They have requested meetings with her to discuss ways in which hundreds of available local engineers can be used to help solve the water crisis, but she is yet to respond with a date.
It is estimated that we have between five and ten years left to transfer vital skills from an older generation of South African engineers before these skill are no longer available. The minister needs to urgently heed these repeated requests for engagement if we are to meet the challenge of our looming water crisis head-on.
And she also needs to come clean with South Africa on the exact state of our water and sanitation. The latest Blue Drop and Green Drop Reports were due for publication at the beginning of the year. It is now mid-July, and we are yet to see them. The minister then promised us an answer by June but, predictably, this deadline has come and gone. The reason for this is most likely that the situation is worse than the minister has been letting on.
We simply cannot allow what happened to our energy security to also happen to our water security. If we want to avoid nation-wide water-shedding, we’re going to need the minister to play open cards with us.
Only if we know the full extent of the problem, can we all act in time to avoid a full-blown crisis.