Several Durban suburbs have been without water for at least a week after the city's water workers went on strike. Picture: ISTOCK
Several Durban suburbs have been without water for at least a week after the city's water workers went on strike. Picture: ISTOCK

The SA Academy of Engineering (SAAE) has expressed deep concern about the looming crisis threatening SA’s water security mainly because of the growing dysfunction in the municipalities responsible for water supply and sanitation services.

The academy said in a statement that throwing scarce public money at the problems will not solve them, and what was required was a more strategic approach.

It has written to president Cyril Ramaphosa to advise him that the failing municipal water services require urgent restructuring “to halt the destructive cycle of wasteful investment and incompetent management”.

The academy warned that the R20bn allocated to municipalities as part of the R500bn Covid-19 relief package would be wasted unless it were used to build properly designed infrastructure that would be operated correctly.

The main causes of the water crisis it said were weak management, a lack of competent and experienced professional and technical staff, political interference in the day-to-day operations, and poor oversight resulting from the limited separation of powers between political policymakers and the executive management in water services authorities.

SAAE fellows had noted cases where politicians have offices in the engineering departments of their municipalities and issue instructions to staff.

Management problems are compounded by the fact that many of the water service authorities are not financially sustainable because of a limited revenue base. The SAAE recommends that the number of water service authorities be reduced and grouped into more viable entities.  

Of the 278 municipalities in the country, 144 are water services authorities responsible for water supply and sanitation services within their areas of operation through water services providers. The academy argues that these authorities should be centred on the metropolitan areas as well as the so-called secondary cities.

“Given that only 30 water services authorities are now viable, no more than 50 water services authorities are envisaged after re-demarcation,” the statement said.

SAAE president Trueman Goba pointed out that 40% of the water sector authorities are rated as extremely vulnerable and another 38% as highly vulnerable. Only 6% had a low level of vulnerability.

A total of 54% of all water sector authorities rely on grant funding for more than 90% of their capital expenditure, 58% collect less than 70% of billed revenue and 42% have a non-revenue water value of more than 40%.

While water supply infrastructure has been provided to serve almost 95% of the population, only about 65% of the population has access to reliable services.

The SAAE has also recommended a two-year part-time management development programme to develop a key group of directors of technical services in municipalities, while the skills of municipal staff should be enhanced.

The absence of experienced in-house engineering professionals results in very poor levels of service delivery. The SAAE said there was a need for about 30,000 skilled artisans and 30,000 competent treatment-plant operators in the municipalities.

Skilled in-house engineering professionals were needed to manage consultants and contractors and to issue comprehensive project briefs and documents of an acceptable standard, the SAAE said.