How to jointly stop the water crisis from becoming a national catastrophe

The water crisis in Johannesburg must not be seen as just a localised city issue; it is a symptom of a bigger national and systemic water crisis

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27/03/2024 09:53:21

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This article was first published in the Daily Maverick on 24 March 2024


How to jointly stop the water crisis from becoming a national catastrophe

The water crisis in Johannesburg must not be seen as just a localised city issue; it is a symptom of a bigger national and systemic water crisis with high levels of unequal access, poor quality and scarcity exacerbated by climate change, mismanagement, corruption and poor leadership.

There is no quick fix to South Africa’s water crisis, but good leadership, ring-fenced funding, better communication and active citizens are key to staving off a complete disaster.

According to the minister of water and sanitation, Sipho Mchunu, and the mayor of the City of Johannesburg, Kabelo Gwamanda, there is no water crisis. 

However, during an interview on 20 March, Mchunu was quoted as saying: “I am very, very, very worried.” 

It was the closest the government had come to agreeing that there was a water crisis in South Africa. This crisis did not start with the first water cuts in Johannesburg in 2022 nor did it begin with Day Zero in Cape Town in 2018. It has been more than 10 years in the making.

Until Mchunu took office in 2021, the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) was one of the worst performing ministries, marred by poor leadership, fraud, corruption and procurement irregularities.

The lack of leadership led to the reduced monitoring and enforcement of basic water regulations, companies operating without proper water-use licences, the neglect of water and sanitation infrastructure (including dams) and the bleeding of skilled staff — the list is endless. 

For example, in 2013 the department, under the control of Nomvula Mokonyane, stopped publishing the Blue Drop and Green Drop reports, which provide a comprehensive assessment of water quality and wastewater treatment plants. In 2017, the department was the worst offender for irregular expenditure. In 2018, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts chairperson said the department had completely collapsed under Mokonyane.

The Lesotho Highlands Project Phase 2 drew to a halt, and it was alleged that the reason was Mokonyane’s meddling. This project should have come online by 2023 but is now delayed until 2029/30. This affects the amount of water that we can abstract from the Vaal River system and could have mitigated the demand from the growing population.

The near collapse of the DWS, in turn, was directly linked to the deterioration of basic water and sanitation services. The Blue Drop, Green Drop and No Drop reports of 2023 were published after years of failure to produce them. 

The reports revealed a distressing decline in municipalities’ ability to supply clean water to residents and treat wastewater effectively. They exposed the severity of the crisis, highlighting a disturbing trend of compromised water quality, with 46% of drinking systems not complying with microbiological standards, 67.6% of wastewater treatment works failing to clean raw sewage and 47.4% of water lost to leaks or unaccounted for.

A 2020 report by Corruption Watch and the Water Integrity Network directly linked corruption in the DWS to water shortages in South Africa. The state of water boards such as Rand Water and municipalities countrywide worsens the situation. While we focused on the national government and State Capture, we forgot to look at municipal capture. 

Rand Water, the bulk supplier for the City of Johannesburg, is abstracting the maximum allowable amount of 5,000 megalitres per day. It has stated that the hot weather has led to increased water consumption, resulting in low levels at its reservoirs. 

The reality is that it has been more than a decade since Rand Water was able to adjust the amount of water needed for the growth in Gauteng’s population, which increased by 23% from 2011 to 2022. As mentioned above, almost half of SA’s water is lost to leaks, theft and poor billing. Fixing this would lead to a lot less pressure on the system.

Worrying questions

We did not cause this crisis, but perhaps it is time for us as ordinary people to lead from the bottom up and reduce our water consumption. Leaving it to the government alone will lead to very constrained systems. The recent events at Rand Water have raised worrying questions. 

Who was responsible for the murder of Rand Water executive Teboho Joala? 

One of the reasons for the latest water outage was a closed valve on Rand Water’s side. Was this sabotage? 

At a municipal level, a lack of budgeting for infrastructure maintenance, no planning for population growth, mismanagement, corruption and a complete absence of leadership have resulted in a poorly functioning water system. 

The mayor of Johannesburg has repeatedly said there is no water crisis and keeps pointing at Rand Water or the national government. While there are elements in this that are true, the city also has much to answer for. 

Gwamanda is Johannesburg’s seventh mayor since December 2019. Political infighting and changing and fragile coalitions have paralysed the city’s ability to manage this crisis. The failing water and sanitation infrastructure is a direct result of the management failure at Joburg Water and the City of Johannesburg. 

Wastewater treatment works in Johannesburg are spewing sewage into rivers and streams. In 2023, WaterCAN laid criminal charges against the city for failing wastewater treatment works and the thousands of litres of raw sewage flowing into the Klip River. Johannesburg needs to replace a minimum of 300-400km of pipes yearly but has planned for only 28km this year. The city is losing 25% of fresh drinking water because of failing infrastructure.

Mismanagement of funds

When citizens demand answers from the city, it is often suggested that there is no budget to fix infrastructure. Is it a lack of funds, or is it mismanagement of funds? 

There has been a consistent lack of budget allocated to maintenance. This year’s maintenance budget is spent on contractors and staff: 58% on contractors, 31% on staff, just 3.4% on “inventory consumed” and the remaining 8% on “other”. 

When the city does get an injection of funds, it is not used. The Treasury has raised concerns about municipalities underperforming and, as a result, has cut billions of rand in allocated budgets and conditional grants. The Treasury has notified the cities of Johannesburg and Tshwane of its intention to cut a combined R1.83-billion for grants due to underperformance. The real losers here are the millions of South Africans who do not receive the services linked to the infrastructure to be built. 

The City of Johannesburg has been granted a loan of $100-million from the International Finance Corporation, a World Bank subsidiary. This loan is supposed to help the city finance its FY22/23 capital expenditure. How this loan has been spent must be investigated. 

At the same time, the city is struggling to collect revenue from consumers. According to Treasury, “The analysis of the collection rates indicates that while municipalities in the year to date have budgeted for a 75.6% collection rate, aggregated actual collection performance against billed is only 58.4%. The underperformance of actual collections against billed revenue holds a significant risk for the liquidity position of most municipalities as the planned expenditure is based on a higher performance level.” 

The bottom line is that the city is in a leadership and financial downward spiral, and at this rate, all services will be affected very badly. 

In a crisis, one would hope for guidance and leadership, but we are seeing a worrying trend of blame games and knee-jerk solutions.

What’s needed

At the national government level, the first thing needed is an acknowledgement that there is a national water crisis requiring action. At the local government level, there needs to be an admission that there is a serious problem with water provision. There needs to be an infrastructure maintenance plan of which people can access and monitor the implementation and costs. In the short to medium term, water treatment and wastewater treatment plants must have qualified personnel and engineers. 

We need to ring-fence funding for water and sanitation and pay service providers (like Rand Water) directly. This avoids money being returned to the Treasury without being spent. The DWS has proposed changes that will assign income from water provision for the upgrade and repair of infrastructure instead of spending on increasing salaries. This is a step in the right direction. 

All levels of government must commit to improving capacity to hold people accountable for failures and non-performance, which includes open and transparent processes, such as tenders for water tanker suppliers and cost. In addition, there is a need for improved enforcement by capacitating the Green and Blue Scorpions to hold all polluters accountable. It is time people went to jail for polluting our rivers and dumping in stormwater drains and wetlands. 

A concerted effort must ensure sustainable and equitable water access for millions of South Africans. People want water now, but in the medium to long term, we all need to play a part in using water sparingly. The situation demands that watering gardens and filling pools with clean drinking water must end. 

There must be better engagement among all stakeholders, as the government will not be able to solve this on its own. As ordinary people on the ground in the face of the water crisis, we must make our voices heard and use them constructively. We need to strengthen civil society and ordinary people to make a difference, and to engage with government at different levels. We must question more and demand information. 

It is only by working together that we can avert a catastrophe. There is too much at stake to sit back and be silent in our anger. 

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