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Water Crisis in South Africa: El Nino or El Mokonyane?

The lack of accountability poses a more severe risk to South Africa than the periodical drought called El Nino: the problem with water in South Africa is El Mokonyane.

South Africa is a water-scarce country with an average annual rainfall of less than 500mm, so, with a growing population of 55 million people, the country faces severe water resource constraints. That difficulty was underlined by the recent calamitous drought. But when it comes to water issues, the worst suffering is caused not by Mother Nature, but by the blatant ignorance of the responsibilities of water custodianship by the Minister of Water and Sanitation, Nomvula Mokonyane. Politics and posturing for control of the spend of water infrastructure are holding South Africa to ransom.

Mokonyane is jeopardising water security for  all South African citizens. It is a basic human right  to have access to sufficient water and a clean environment, yet Mokonyane withholds water from the people and the economy through questionable decision making and poor regulation. Most of the Water Services Authorities under her control pollute water resources, costing billions of rands and threatening lives, yet, remarkably, nobody has been brought to task over this.

The delay Mokonyane caused with the Lesotho Highland Scheme Phase II added an extra estimated cost of R2 billion and she has not (yet) been held accountable for a cent.

In 2014/15, Mokonyane underspent her budget by R2 billion. The largest portion of these unspent funds was in the implementation of water supply projects, the very area of greatest need in South Africa’s water scarcity. The economic fallout from the lack of fresh water for domestic use and business ventures could have been avoided in a period of drought, had she conducted her statutory duties responsibly.

The Minister of Water and Sanitation is the public trustee of the nation’s water resources in terms of section 3(1) of the National Water Act 36 of 1998. This states that, through her, the government “must ensure that water is protected, used, developed, conserved, managed and controlled in a sustainable and equitable manner, for the benefit of all persons and in accordance with its constitutional mandate”.

She is also the regulator of water services. The  main purpose of a regulator is to act in the public interest and ensure that consumers – be they the poor or the business sector – enjoy good services and safe water. With such an important role, it goes without saying that the water services regulator should not be influenced by political priorities which could be to the detriment of public interest.

Unfortunately, it seems that  that her attention was more focussed on politically related favours and ensuring that cadres got the tenders and not those who can efficiently and effectively provide communities with sufficient clean and healthy water. Making matters worse, is that many of these companies never completed the projects for which they were paid, leaving rural communities with false hope but no water, whilst the minister as custodian of water security took limited or no action over these transgressions.

She has brutally purged her department of experienced employees, putting the security of South Africa’s water resources at risk.

Here is how water management has fared under Mokonyane’s watch:

  1. The Department of Water and Sanitation stopped monitoring water quality in 2015, citing a lack of human and financial resources, yet it failed to spend R2 billion of its 2014/15 annual budget.
  2. An astonishing 71% of wastewater treatment facilities are non-compliant and discharge more than 4 billion litres of toxic wastewater into our water resources every day, threatening drinking water, food security and public health.
  3. The 2014 Blue Drop Report found that 76% of municipal drinking water systems fail drinking water quality standards on chemical compliance and 20% fail on microbiological compliance.
  4. There’s no accountability for maintenance, so leaks mean that 36.4% of treated drinking water is lost from urban infrastructure.
  5. Taxpayers should be concerned that, under Mokonyane, the department scored only 33% on usefulness and reliability of information in an Auditor-General’s report.
  6. The department is currently sitting with a cumulative figure of R2.5 billion in irregular expenditure and R87.2 million in fruitless and wasteful expenditure.
  7. The minister’s apparent lack of monitoring performance of all water services institutions and quality is of serious concern. The Blue Drop certification process and the declining status of water quality reflected therein, is extremely concerning.
  8. Based on reports in Parliament, the Minister and her department are unable to plan, fund, operate, collect sufficient revenue and maintain a highly sophisticated water supply system of major dams, pumping works and inter-basin transfers with an annual turnover of billions of rand. Furthermore, it was recently reported in Parliament that “the planned 50% completion of establishing a proto-national Water Infrastructure Agency and approved Agency Bill was not achieved”.
  9. The Ministry of Water is failing to protect water resources from pollution and over-abstraction, as is demonstrated by the critical state of our water resources, even before the recent drought.
  10. In 2016 various newspaper articles documented systematic attempts by businesspeople close to Mokonyane to hijack key water infrastructure projects such as the R26 billion Lesotho Highlands Water Project (Phase II), the R5 billion Giyani Emergency Project, the Mhlathuze Water Board and the Umgeni Water Board.
  11. The Water Trading Entity (WTE), a unit within the department tasked with managing water sales and rights, has racked up a R3.5 billion overdraft. Allegedly, there are plans to merge the Trans Caledon Tunnel Authority and WTE into a state-owned enterprise which will lead to this minister appointing a board. This will enable her to ask it to do whatever she wants it to do, including diverting tenders to her preferred recipients.

South Africa faces significant economic, health and social challenges in the face of low and unpredictable water supply and  the lack of infrastructure maintenance, coupled with high (and growing) demand and poor use of existing water resources. The fact that the water crisis is worsened by the minister’s poor leadership and lack of accountability should be seen as an enormous threat to every South African.

When drinking water is not safe and taps run dry, the poor revert to using dirty streams. Add to this the daily problem of sewage spilling into streets and possibly contaminating boreholes, and it is easy to see that South Africans are facing increasing health risks, all as a result of yet another incompetent state department.

According to the World Wildlife Fund South Africa, 98% of water (or an estimated 15 billion m³ of water) has been allocated. It is projected that the national demand for water would increase by 32% by 2030 due to population growth and economic development. However, water is already not being governed, used and managed responsibly, something illustrated by yet another alarming statistic: the average South African uses 279 litres per day, compared to the international average of 173 litres per day.

It is clear there is insufficient progress in curtailing water demand, reducing water losses and conserving water. These are key strategies to avert a water crisis, something which Mokonyane and her department are apparently not addressing with the intensity required.

Whilst Mokonyane’s “War on Leaks” programme is a very good initiative, with its plan to train 15 000 young plumbers and artisans, progress in this area of water conservation and demand management is far too slow and allegations making the rounds indicate that these teams aren’t adequately equipped with the proper tools to service the infrastructure.

South Africa urgently needs a Water Regulator who can ensure that water is protected, used, developed, conserved, managed and controlled in a sustainable and equitable manner, for the benefit of all and in accordance with the government’s constitutional mandate.

When it comes to this critical resource, a form of zero tolerance is needed. Playing a political game with this critical resource will lead to economic instability and significant loss of life, with national security risks that come along with it.

We have the resources to build new infrastructure and to maintain the infrastructure that we have. What we need is a regulatory framework and a responsible custodian to ensure that these resources will be available to meet our future development needs. What are we waiting for?

Julius Kleynhans is the Portfolio Director for Water & Environment at OUTA

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