We live in a water-scarce country. SA receives mean annual rainfall of about 500mm a year, almost 50% less than the global average of 860mm a year. The country is also prone to drought and things are likely to get worse as the effects of climate change and global warming start to become more apparent.
The government, almost certainly, is not to blame when it does not rain. But a lot of the water shortages experienced at household level in SA can most definitely be blamed on the dearth of service delivery and the general inability to maintain and build infrastructure by all spheres of government.
Water restrictions now being implemented in metros across the powerhouse-without-power province of Gauteng provide a good illustration of this conundrum — showing that the water crisis is not really a water crisis, but rather a governance crisis. Similar to the energy and transport crises.
SA’s bulk water infrastructure, much like electricity, rail and roads, has been poorly maintained and investment in new build has been too low and too slow to keep up with the rate of population growth and urbanisation, let alone meaningful economic growth.
The water restrictions in Gauteng are not due to a lack of supply. The Vaal Dam, one of the main sources supplying Rand Water, is more than 90% full, but ageing infrastructure and power failures that affect pumping infrastructure mean that the rate of supply of water via reservoirs cannot keep up with demand.
By the government’s own measure the country will face a 17% water supply gap by 2030 if nothing is done to augment supply. And this does not mean that the country needs more water, just that existing resources must be managed better.
More than a third of municipal water is lost through leakage. The national water and sanitation master plan, published in 2019, was an urgent call to action. It detailed how municipalities were losing about R10bn per year in revenue from water due to the poor state of infrastructure — that is literally money down the drain. The state of water treatment works is enough to make a person boil even bathwater twice — about half the water treatment facilities are in a poor-to-critical condition.
It was estimated, at the time, that SA would need to spend R33bn per year, over 10 years, to achieve water security. This has not happened. Now the need is greater, the crisis more urgent and the money, arguably, even scarcer given the immediate need for spending on energy.
But even when the money is made available, at municipal level — where much of the implementation work of the government takes place — the dysfunction is so complete that funds in the kitty are either underspent, overspent or in some cases not spent at all.
Earlier this week residents and businesses in the Amathole District Municipality in the Eastern Cape, which includes towns such as Peddie, Komga, Stutterheim, Kei Mouth and Haga Haga, sent out a statement pleading with local leadership not to let a R500m maintenance and infrastructure grant come to nothing.
According to the citizens of Amathole, the district stands to forfeit the grant allocated by the Treasury in July this year because the municipality failed to spend the first tranche of R100m.
This is the case while communities in the district “are without water, sometimes for weeks on end” because of the lack of maintenance. One of the water projects for which the grant was intended was the Mncwasa Water Scheme, which became operational in 2015. But because it has not been maintained the 33,000 people who depend on it have been receiving unreliable supply of water.
It is not as if the municipalities can look to national departments for inspiration, because projects at the highest spheres of government are not faring any better.
The lifting of the Clanwilliam dam wall, a project driven by the department of water & sanitation that was supposed to have been completed in 2018, is already four years behind schedule and expected to be completed seven years late. Costs have escalated from R2.2bn to an estimated R4bn. Just one more incomplete monument to a government that has relegated SA to a state in perpetual crisis.
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