Neels Blom Columnist
Nomvula Mokonyane. Picture: RUVAN BOSHOFF
Nomvula Mokonyane. Picture: RUVAN BOSHOFF

In what amounts to a significant policy shift, Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane has announced a water conference to be held at the end of November at which the private sector would be asked to participate in infrastructure investment amounting to at least R14bn.

Water provision has mostly been the preserve of the government and local authorities. The main fear has been that if placed in commercial hands, costs will go up.

Apart from a few small, privately operated water boards, SA’s water sector is dominated by large state-owned entities such as Rand Water, Umgeni Water and the Trans Caledon Tunnel Authority.

The minister acknowledged that 27 district municipalities could not provide water and sanitation services.

"Some of these municipalities do not have the capacity to plan properly. They are not viable. Some of them should just be shut down," she said.

The private investment envisaged by the minister would include large bulk-water and sanitation schemes, municipal systems and what she called capacity-building investments. The Water Resources Group estimates that SA will face a 17% supply demand deficit by 2030. This equates to 3.8-billion kilolitres of water.

Water expert Prof Anthony Turton said he welcomed private participation in the sector. He said two big schemes had already been announced. "It is obviously what has to happen.

"That said, the big issue concerns the investability [potential return in the medium to long term] of the government. Unless the statutes [regulating water] are reformed, an adequate level of investment is unlikely."

The CEO of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering also welcomed the announcement but said an investment level of R14bn seemed low.

"It is all very well to have a summit, but it doesn’t mean anything will necessarily be implemented. In our experience, the government often uses these summits so that they can say they have consulted the private sector. The idea of consultation is that the recommendations are implemented. Otherwise, why bother?"

In its 2017 infrastructure report card, the institution rated bulk-water infrastructure at D minus, meaning that it was at risk of failure and not coping with demand. This was due to poor maintenance and demanded prompt action.

It said the public was at risk of severe inconvenience and exposed to danger.

Sanitation in all areas except the main urban areas was rated E, the lowest grade, which meant it was "unfit for purpose" and was exposing the public to health and safety hazards.

Asked whether any investment resulting from the conference would not be too late for the Western Cape, which is under threat of total water-system collapse by March, Mokonyane said "better late than never". She assured people in the Western Cape that the province would not be permitted to run out of water.

She said that the poorer areas of Khayelitsha and Nyanga were not the problem, but that it was wealthier people in places such as Bishopscourt who were not keeping to water restrictions.

"Big fines don’t matter to them. The penalty should be to have their water cut off for a few days," she said.

blomn@bdlive.co.za

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