Picture: 123RF/CHAYAPON BOOTBOONNEAM.
Picture: 123RF/CHAYAPON BOOTBOONNEAM.

Tender corruption in mega projects for the construction of water infrastructure is putting the nation’s water security at risk, President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Monday.

Water scarcity is in the spotlight after a decade-long drought and existing freshwater supplies dwindling. Efforts to improve water provision have been  hampered by corruption in government, municipalities and water boards.

In his medium-term budget policy statement (MTBPS) in parliament in 2018, finance minister Tito Mboweni decried the state of the country’s water industry.

“The Giyani water project is ... a cesspool of corruption,” he said then, referring to the botched Limpopo-based project, which is plagued by allegations of poor management and financial woes. Initiated in 2014, the initiative was intended to supply 55 villages with water, but it has faced challenges ranging from disregard for supply-chain rules to poor contract management, resulting in irregular expenditure.

Mboweni also asked the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) to  help solve the water crisis in the Vaal river. Parts of the river had become polluted by raw sewage, and the government is blaming municipalities for mismanagement.

“Mismanagement of water resources and corruption in the water sector has in no small part contributed to the situation we currently face,” Ramaphosa said in his weekly president's letter on Monday.

“Serious accountability and governance issues persist, whether it is in the building of infrastructure or at a municipal level, where water losses are mounting as a result of billing errors, unauthorised usage and outright theft.”

Ramaphosa warned there would be criminal repercussions for those found guilty of this.

A week ago, the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) raided Lepelle Northern Water in connection with alleged corruption at the Giyani Water Project. Ramaphosa said: “The amount allegedly involved — R2bn — is staggering, but unfortunately symptomatic of wide-scale tender corruption in these mega projects.”

“This is putting the entire nation’s water security at risk, and the ongoing SIU probes into irregularities in these projects will continue. As will the work of the Hawks’ National Clean Audit Task Team probing municipalities, where corruption in the provision of tankering services has frequently been alleged.

“Accountability will be enforced as part of restoring integrity to the sector.”

Ramaphosa urged households to use water more sparingly and municipalities to invest in water recycling technologies.

To address concerns that economic development is being held back by drought, poor water infrastructure and delays in obtaining water-use licences, Ramaphosa said the government had directed the water permit office to reduce the waiting time for water licences. “Significant progress has been made. The waiting period has been reduced quite dramatically.”

Municipalities are also installing bulk meters at reservoirs, repairing leaks and burst pipes, throttling water outlets at night to replenish reservoir supplies and upgrading existing water treatment works.

Ramaphosa said to ensure SA's future water security, the country would need funding of at least R126bn for infrastructure.