Isaac Mangena
Isaac Mangena

Water woes: Government must act fast

In an unexpected move by former president Thabo Mbeki four years ago, he apologised for what he knew he could have acted on earlier, but didn’t. It was at the time when the term “load shedding” became fashionable because it was dawning on everyone, including Mbeki, that the country was heading for darkness. Mbeki gathered his strength and owned up: “When Eskom said to the government: ‘We think we must invest more in terms of electricity generation,’ we said, “No, but all you will be doing is just to build excess capacity.” We said not now, later. We were wrong. Eskom was right. We were wrong.”

He was conceding to the fact that Eskom senior officials warned him and other government officials a few years earlier to invest in electricity infrastructure to keep up with demand emanating from the country’s economic growth. Eskom managers had warned him that unless something is done, the country will have rolling blackouts by 2010. And it happened … we experienced the worst power cuts in years, forcing Eskom to start rationing electricity.

A similar situation unfolding in the country now. This time it is water that’s under threat.

On Monday the water affairs department had a press conference in Cape Town to talk about the water needs of the country and how the backlog can be avoided. The department said water infrastructure is in trouble and it will need R573-billion to deal with the problem and meet the country’s growing demand for water.

Failure to do so will lead to disaster, though Minister Edna Molewa didn’t say so in so many words. She said there’s a “significant shortfall” that needs to be addressed. The money needed will include about R394-billion for water services, R162-billion for water resources infrastructure and R16-billion for water demand management. “If you look at the current budget allocations (for all departmental, municipal and water board infrastructure and services requirements)… our 10-year projection is that 44 percent is budgeted for. You’ve got a gap of 56 percent,” Trevor Balzer, an official at the department told reporters.

Although Molewa has identified the problem, she doesn’t seem to be urgently addressing it, only agreeing that “a lot of money” is needed. She is still “in discussion” with government to figure out how to address the shortfall without making holes in too many pockets.

But the truth is this problem was identified a long time ago and, again, was denied by our government. Signs have always been there.

Many will remember when the country faced one of its biggest health threats ever in 2000. A cholera epidemic swept through the country, leaving at least 265 people dead and infecting 117 147 people in five provinces. This was mostly due to the problem with our water systems, as a result of lack of maintenance.

But in 2008, then water affairs minister Lindiwe Benedicta Hendricks told lawmakers and the country that South Africa was NOT facing any water crisis.

I wonder where Hendricks is now. Wherever she is, she won’t be missed. And like many before her, she won’t be answering for these problems – in fact, she thought we didn’t have any. Did she really ignore the many reports about the water dangers we were heading for from experts and even opposition parties in government? The UN Economic Commission for Africa report in 1999 characterised South Africa as a water-stressed country and predicted that with the water use behaviour and the economic growth parameters at the time, “South Africa would be a water scarce country by 2025”. 

Another report by the Water Research Commission (WRC) said taps were running dry, with the total water availability in South Africa in 2002 at 13.209 billion cubic metres per annum, and the demand then already at 13.084 billion cubic metres per annum. “It is quite likely that without infrastructure development and renewal, combined with a radical change in water use behavior, we will indeed reach a state of hardship,” the WRC said.

In 2004, an area in Meyerdale, south of Johannesburg, was nearly completely washed away after a huge pipe owned by Rand Water burst. And investigation called by Dr Simo Lushaba, then Rand Water chief executive, found that this was caused by, among other problems, ageing infrastructure and lack of proper maintenance of the pipelines. The report found that routine maintenance was never done on the pipeline which was over 40 years old. This led to the steel pipe ripping open in the middle of the night and about 80-million litres of water surging through the houses and shacks on July 5 2004.

This is but one example. I am sure there have been many others in the past and many more still to come in the future if nothing is done.

Yes, there are many factors that play into this. Obviously, after the overdue death of apartheid, our government was under tremendous pressure to expand water and sewerage infrastructure to previously disadvantaged areas. And as the Democratic Alliance rightfully pointed out, “the political pressure to deliver” led to our government ignoring warnings about the consequences of “rolling out new water projects without setting aside enough money to maintain the existing facilities”.

The DA (which can be difficult to believe at times, but I did believe them on this issue) in 2008 was complaining about the R1-billion that was allocated by government instead of the R180-billion that was needed then for a complete overhaul of the water system.

The failure of government to act then will now cost tax payers almost three times that amount – R573-billion. And government is looking at us, consumers, to fund this through above-inflation tarrifs that will be imposed soon.

“It goes without saying that the cost is likely to be very high. And therefore the charges that have to be paid [by consumers[ may also be high,” Molewa said.

I wonder what happened to the government’s free litres of water programme, but that’s a topic for another day. I think the WRC’s CEO Dhesigen Naidoo was right when he suggested this week that the tarrifs, when they happen, should hit those who misuse water and the rich. He suggested a tariff structure that “[escalates] with the larger burden on the less efficient and excessive users and providing relief for the more water wise users and the poor”, and that will be linked to “water infrastructure development as an investment in the next generation”. May I add that government officials need to be trained in water management skills, and municipalities in particular need to adequately keep their water systems maintained at all times.

It’s 18 years since the dawn of democracy in South Africa and we can no longer blame apartheid for things like our water woes. We have learnt our lessons and I hope President Zuma has learnt from the disasters of electricity outages. Unlike electricity, water is a precious resource that needs to be taken care of. Failure to do so will lead to all sorts of diseases, and death.

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