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That drip, drip, drip you hear is the sound of an entirely new class of bureaucrats shifting the blame for their own failings.

The latest instalment in the Olympic sport that is SA governmental buck-passing is Rand Water’s assertion that inconsiderate consumers are to blame for the water outages now crippling SA’s economic hub, Gauteng. The company, which is responsible for the distribution of water in the province, has shaken off a stultifying torpor in its efforts to explain itself.

For a start, it contends Gauteng’s water consumption per person per day is more than 300l against a world average of 173l. Except this is bunkum. Speaking to News24 this week, water expert Anthony Turton said: “Any credible mathematical calculation shows that the total volume of water being pumped, divided by the population being served, but including the 50%-plus leakage in the system, means that South Africans actually consume less than the global average.” 

Leaving aside the “50%-plus leakage” for a moment, there’s the disingenuity of blaming both a heatwave (hardly unforeseen) and Eskom’s load-shedding for the province’s suddenly empty reservoirs. While these and municipal “system crashes” may offer an easy scapegoat, that rather suggests that rolling blackouts are a novel phenomenon — not a 15-year blight on SA.

You may ask, as the FM has done, why Eskom can’t simply isolate critical water provision infrastructure to ensure continuity of supply when the powers that be at the woefully named Megawatt Park flick the switch on SA’s electricity. After all, the lights are always on at, say, the Union Buildings.

Only, Eskom explains that while regulations exempt SA’s seat of government from power cuts, reservoirs and hospitals are fed by the lines that supply ordinary residents. That means it’s the municipalities themselves that have to isolate such points — surely wholly in their power and wholly doable, even if it means exempting an entire area from load-shedding to keep the taps running.

Of course, that would imply a certain level of forward thinking — not to mention actual public service provision. It would also require some kind of maintenance of municipalities’ ageing, and now rapidly deteriorating, infrastructure. Sadly, both of these are as vanishingly rare as a minister stumping up for services (nonexistent, in other words).

The municipalities, for their part, will wail about resource constraints. But that’s largely a problem of their own making. Consider the figures from the City of Joburg’s most recent annual report. Never mind the R272m-odd racked up in irregular expenditure for “water” and Joburg Water combined — that’s Monopoly money in the municipal game. “Nonrevenue water” — unbilled and unmetered water, as well as physical and commercial losses — cost the city R2.4bn in the past financial year. That’s surely money that could be channelled into infrastructure maintenance and repairs. You know, fixing leaks.

Don’t look to national government for too much help either. Rand Water and Joburg Water “are part of the public sector and need to be held accountable by the department of water & sanitation”, the University of Johannesburg’s Prof Mary Galvin told News24.

Yet, as parts of Gauteng languished without water over the weekend, water & sanitation minister Senzo Mchunu convened an “emergency” meeting — for Monday morning. So much for a sense of urgency. And the establishment of a “water war room”? Given the success of Cyril Ramaphosa’s Eskom war room, you’ll forgive our cynicism.

That Gauteng could approach its own “day zero” when the province’s feeder dams are about 90% full, speaks to institutional and government failure of a special sort. God help us when an actual drought kicks in.

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