DA MP Leon Basson has proposed a fascinating solution to SA’s Eskom challenge: take the whole business back into government. Let the department of energy run the country’s electricity supply. That will surely solve the problem.

Actually, that’s not his proposal for electricity, but for water. Responding to the release by water and sanitation minister Lindiwe Sisulu of her department’s water master plan, Basson said the DA opposed her “plans to establish a new state-owned enterprise [SOE] …. to outsource the work her department is already mandated to do”.

The proposal Basson objects to is for the establishment of a National Water Resources and Services Infrastructure Agency. This would do the financing, building and operations of the large water systems that keep the country water secure.

Yet the proposal is not for a new organisation. It is for the amalgamation of an existing SOE, the Trans Caledon Tunnel Authority, with those units of the department that undertake similar work on large water resource infrastructure systems. The intention is to establish a single organisation with a clear mandate and proper accounting systems for the development and operation of those infrastructures — and to get them off the government’s budget.

The Trans Caledon Tunnel Authority has already raised almost R50bn from the private sector to implement large water infrastructure. This has included the phase one dams of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which have kept Gauteng water secure for two decades; the Berg River Dam that saved Cape Town from Day Zero and the projects that have kept Eskom’s power stations and Ethekwini’s taps running.

But there are other projects in the wings that need to be developed and managed. These include major expansions to the Umgeni system, which supplies Ethekwini and the region, as well as continuing investments in the Vaal system. These projects require full-time attention.

Meanwhile, some of the key infrastructure on which our cities and industries depend is in a dire state. Major water users have taken to writing to the minister, warning her about pumps that have broken down and not been repaired — allegedly because of lack of funds — leaving critical systems with no reserve capacity. Other users are concerned that critical operations such as the transfer of water from the Thukela dams to Sterkfontein — the Vaal river system’s main strategic reserve — have been interrupted by community protests and a shortage of funds. That’s why at the start of a hot dry summer, Sterkfontein is more than 5% below its target levels.

Basson apparently wants these critical functions to be left in an organisation whose leadership is pulled from pillar to post by more immediate problems it has to manage with limited resources. Today they are trying to fix sewerage works in Emfuleni, tomorrow to find a water source for Eastern Cape towns that kept pumping until their dams dried up and then threw up their hands and cried “help”. It is a department that has to respond to complaints from a president and finance minister about the time it takes to get a water licence for their farms, and to environmentalists distraught at the destruction of yet another wetland. Then officials have to manage relationships with neighbours such as Lesotho, Namibia, Mozambique and Eswatini, all of which want more water or more money or both for managing our shared rivers.

As Sisulu explained, a key objective of her proposal is to improve accountability. Basson should welcome that given the failure of parliament to achieve effective oversight of the department’s complex operations and tangled finances, and its multitude of acting officials. From the portfolio committee Basson should know how difficult it is to track departmental funds.

Members shuffle papers about corruption in Giyani, collapsing pit toilets in the Eastern Cape and the failed War on Leaks training programmes, and try to understand why the department invests in information technology for autonomous water boards and spends rural water budgets to stem the flow of sewage into the Vaal River. They don’t understand the intergovernmental funding systems that pump money into local government while water leaks out of the pipes even faster.

Basson and the DA know parliament has had more success with its oversight of the water boards, which have a clear mandate and accounting structure. So it is difficult to be sympathetic with objections to efforts to simplify water’s institutional structures. As Sisulu said: “The establishment of new organisations with a clear and limited set of responsibilities will enable their management to focus on a clear set of objectives and will improve organisational accountability.”

It was interesting that at last week’s master plan launch one of the loudest rounds of applause came for the institutional proposals, from both representatives of agricultural organisations and the department’s own staff. Both groups know the centralised administration is just not working.

But there is hope. Basson is wavering. A few weeks ago he told the parliamentary committee: “Wastewater treatment and water purification plants are dysfunctional ... [municipalities] cannot run these plants and they must be given to water authorities like the water boards to run on their behalf.”

What works for a municipality should work for the department. Put the right functions in the right organisation. The institutional reform proposals are neither privatisation nor outsourcing. They are an attempt to achieve a rational reorganisation of a public service for the public good. And the DA should support them.

• Muller, a former director-general of water affairs, is a visiting adjunct professor at the Wits School of Governance and adviser to the water & sanitation minister. He writes in his personal capacity.

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