South Africa

Analysis: A drought of nature compounded by a drought in leadership

By Marianne Merten 22 January 2018

The politics of water in times of scarcity is not about counting ever-evaporating cubic metres of dam water, as important as this is, but the creeping annihilation of South Africa’s fragile social fabric and economic sustainability. From Cape Town to Ugu in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape’s Butterworth and the dusty streets of water-limited councils in the Free State, North West and elsewhere, official paralysis amid political brinkmanship is the order of the day. While the well-off try to buy their way out, be it through boreholes or stockpiling, no one is immune from the impact of social and economic conflict. By MARIANNE MERTEN.

The 1969 Soccer War, ostensibly about a football match between El Salvador and Honduras, actually was about a scarce resource, land, and manipulated political dynamics to effect direly needed land reform while maintaining elite interests. Or as Polish journalist Ryszard Kapu?ci?ski wrote in 1991 about the “real reasons” for the 100-hour war that killed 6,000, wounded 12,000 and displaced 50,000 that he had witnessed:

Salvadoran peasants settled in Honduras, established villages, and grew accustomed to a better life than the one they had left behind… In the 1960s unrest began among the Honduran peasantry, which was demanding land, and the Honduras government passed a decree on agricultural reform. But since this was an oligarchical government, dependent on the United States, the decree did not break up the land of either the oligarchy or the large banana plantations belonging to the United Fruit Company… Relations between the two countries were tense. Newspapers on both sides waged a campaign of hate, slander and abuse, calling each other Nazis, dwarfs, drunkards, sadists, spiders, aggressors and thieves. There were pogroms. Shops were burned…”

The Soccer War spawned academic research from environmental scholarship to political science and military studies that have established resource scarcity as a trigger of conflict – across and within borders, socially and economically.

Anthony Turton, professor for environmental management at Free State University, says the international literature highlights how times of resource scarcity highlight differences between the poor and the rich, and second, the underlying local tensions.

Right now, in Cape Town rich people have the quarter million rand to drill boreholes, the poor don’t,” Turton told Daily Maverick, adding later: “The state is no longer in control. There is a borehole bonanza, if you have the money. But not one of those boreholes is legal.”

South Africa had the water skills, provided institutions remained well funded and robust, but given the “acute crisis in a number of places” across the country, there has been a systemic failure across the board. “What is happening in the water sector now as a system is almost a mirror of the energy sector failures (of a few years ago),” said Turton.

Water management is complex. The 1998 National Water Act, which recognises that “water is a scarce and unevenly distributed national resource”, puts the national minister in charge as the state’s custodian of a public resource “to ensure that water is allocated equitably and used beneficially in the public interest while promoting environmental values”.

A range of institutions like water boards and provincial and local governments, which receive monies from the national purse for water infrastructure, also must play their crucial role under the 2005 Intergovernmental Relations Framework Act. There’s a plethora of structures such as system operating forums, water and sanitation committees, water use committees and drought committees established at various levels within and across different spheres of government.

All is well – if there are no pressures in the system. But the stresses have ramped up in recent years. All of South Africa’s metros have faced water scarcity of varying levels of direness since 2015. And millions of citizens in towns, dorpies and villages across the country suffered under erratic or non-existent water supplies to homes, schools and hospitals.

The causes are not unknown. Aside from the current drought, the worst in living memory, the problems are well-known, longstanding and well-documented. These include ageing and leaking infrastructure, tender corruption that leaves pipes rotting at the side of the road, as City Press reported in late 2017, and municipal failure to pay for the water they receive for their residents, as happened at Emfuleni, Gauteng, earlier in January. Into this mix come the dire financials and performance of Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane’s department, which received a qualified opinion for the 2016/17 financial year from the Auditor-General after it incurred R715-million in irregular expenditure and R406-million in unauthorised expenditure.

In a deeply divided and unequal South Africa, these conflicts over scarce resources such as water are mostly hidden in the affected poor and working-class communities until protests grab the headlines. Yet it is a long-standing repeating pattern that brings together resource scarcity, politicking, protest and economic exploitation of governance failures by, for example, residents selling water to other residents whose taps have run dry but who need water to take chronic medication and to feed families.

For example: Ermelo, Mpumalanga, in February 2011 saw protests against failed service delivery, unemployment and councillors’ nominations for the upcoming municipal poll. In May 2015 Bloemhof, North West, protested when three babies died after contaminated water was supplied after taps ran dry. In mid-2016 there were protests in Mbombela, Mpumalanga, and Vhembe, Limpopo, as service delivery failures saw taps run dry.

In Cape Town, taps are set to dry up on 21 April, or Day Zero, when at least 20,000 residents must queue at each of 200 water collection points for a daily water ration of 25 litres per person in the metro that, according to official statistics, contributes 10% to South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP) and 72% to the Western Cape economy.

Cape Town is not unique. When Brazil’s mega city of São Paulo in 2015 was amid a water crisis caused by the combined effects of drought and ageing infrastructure, the impact of, for example, 12-hour water outages disproportionally affected poorer areas, according to Time magazine. “The outlying city of Itu saw massive protests last year – sometimes turning violent – when the city tried to cut them off from the water network entirely… (W)hile wealthier residents have been able to build water tanks and purchase water from private sources, the poorest residents can’t do that.”

Amid the flouting by those who believe they can, and they do get away with it in the DA-run City of Cape Town, water scarcity strains the socio-economic fabric, and sharpens inequality. At the lengthening water queues at two of Cape Town’s natural springs, tensions are flaring up as some also arrive to load up bakkies with water, possibly for resale or to unlawfully fill up a pool, amid aggressive posturing, according to social media descriptions and personal accounts to Daily Maverick.

On the day Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille last week announced that the daily water ration would fall to 50 litres per person from February – and punitive water tariffs, which Johannesburg and eThekwini were much, much quicker to implement during their respective water crises – the SAPS in Pinelands, again, flooded their sports field.

It looks like a wetland,” a resident told Daily Maverick, who has continued to witness sprinklers in action to keep those posh southern suburbs lawns green even amid critical level water restrictions.

But how did it get here? The timeline is a deeply worrying illustration of political brinkmanship and governance paralysis as bureaucrats appeared keenly focused on shuffling papers and touting platitudes so as not to upset their political bosses.

In November 2015 the Western Cape administration asked national government to declare as a disaster area the whole province as Cape Town instituted the first soft water restrictions. It was nothing but an opening salvo in the political game. Under the 2002 Disaster Management Act a premier can make such a declaration for the whole province or parts of it. Just ask Gauteng Premier David Makhura, who has done so again recently after devastating storms.

In January 2016, the national government declared five regions in the Cape hinterland drought disaster areas to benefit, predominately, from national disaster funds allocated for agricultural relief.

In March 2017, two months after Cape Town moved to level three water restrictions that required, among others, cars and boats to be washed from buckets, the metro was declared a local disaster area.

That declaration, according to Cape Town city insiders, released R20-million from the national Co-operative Governance Department, which administers the disaster fund monies, but little more. To date there are grumblings that the city was not getting the support extended to ANC-run councils in crisis like the national support for a desalination plant at Richard’s Bay, KwaZulu-Natal, in the water crunch that started in 2014, and Mokonyane using ministerial powers in the Johannesburg water crisis to establish so-called restriction committees to allow for tougher enforcement across the board.

Meanwhile, Cape Town Mayor Patricia De Lille’s meetings with Mokonyane, Daily Maverick is reliably informed, aggrieved some elements in the City and provincial administration – and also the Western Cape DA whose chairperson, Anton Bredell, is also a vital cog in intergovernmental relations. Mokonyane’s officials in response to requests for comment have dismissed claims of politicking, saying the minister was on public record that “water knows no boundaries”.

On 23 May 2017 Western Cape Premier Helen Zille finally declared the whole province, including its metro, a disaster area. In a public media statement following the notice published in the provincial Government Gazette, Zille said: “The disaster declaration will accelerate the Western Cape Disaster Management Centre’s project ‘Avoiding Day Zero’, the province’s strategy to ensure that taps do not run dry.”

That declaration came days after a water indaba under the motto “Western Cape Water Security – 2020 and Beyond”.

At the indaba it emerged that Cape Town residents used 70% of water – homes lead at 55%, with informal settlement residents’ usage trickling in at a mere 4.7% – the Western Cape disaster management touted its “risk register” and called for crucial interventions such as desalination plants, drilling into aquifers and establishing boreholes at hospitals. Forward some six months, and that’s exactly what De Lille most recently listed as Day Zero amelioration measures, although the city’s info dash board shows the desalination plants plans are well behind schedule.

The 16 May 2017 water indaba is important in other respects. It showed the Water and Sanitation Department was well aware of the dire and deteriorating situation. “The situation has deteriorated significantly since last year… The current capacity of dams in the Western Cape is the lowest recorded in the last 30 years,” said the power point presentation by Deputy Director-General: Strategic and Emergency Projects, Trevor Balzer.

The solution? A continued focus on water restrictions and augmentation measures such as cleaning the last 10% of the usually unusable water at Voëlvlei and the Theewaterskloof dams. That cleaning, once dam levels drop to 13%, remains top of the department’s agenda eight months later, according to official national responses given to the Daily Maverick last week.

It’s a traditional, infrastructure-focused approach despite the department’s spin of “business unusual” in the draft National Water Master Plan released for public consultation in December 2017. Despite the cash crunch on the national purse, it applied not only in the Western Cape, but elsewhere such as Butterworth where a persistent water scarcity that saw schools close and the hospital run out of water for two weeks is to be remedied by a R350-million pipeline from the Xilinxa Dam, according to the Daily Despatch.

In the Western Cape, by late September 2017 further nationally sanctioned water restrictions for urban and agricultural users in the provincial water supply system were gazetted to give the province and its municipalities additional tools for water savings compliance enforcement.

By then Cape Town had reached level 5 water restrictions, limiting personal daily use to 87 litres – not adhered to by six out of 10 Capetonians by as recently as last week, according to the city’s info dash board – and potential fines for homes using more than 20 kilolitres of water a month, later dropped to 10,500 litres a household a month as restrictions were rapidly ramped up towards year end.

But by October 2017 Zille continued to blame the national government for the dire water straits in the province and city.

In the December 2017 adjustment budget adopted by the provincial allocation, R95-million was allocated to relieve water scarcity, including R2-million for food gardens in the Cape hinterland where R10-million would also be spent on boreholes. By then, Beaufort West, the Karoo’s economic and administrative hub, had run out of surface water. It was the non-governmental organisation Gift of the Givers that stepped in, according to its website, to locate and drill to release additional water.

At that stage it was clear the water crisis in Cape Town had escalated towards a water shut-off, as had the DA factional infighting amid political manoeuvring to blame the national government.

The mayor’s office did not respond to questions for comment, but the Western Cape administration said it’s done what it can. “We believe, as a provincial department, we are doing and have done everything we can within our limited mandate, both proactively as well as throughout the ongoing crisis,” said the Local Government MEC’s spokesperson James-Brent Styan.

The DA Federal Executive, the party’s highest decision-making structure which earlier this month gave its Cape Town caucus the marching orders to remove De Lille from the water crisis, agreed at the weekend. And it put DA national leader Mmusi Maimane in charge to lead a “party campaign to communicate what the plan for the City of Cape Town is and to encourage water saving will be launched” according to a statement from DA spokesperson Phumzile van Damme.

Water in times of scarcity had just been turned into a national political football in the contest for the 2019 elections.

Yet in a semi-arid country like South Africa, water scarcity and its devastating impact on economic activity, and deepening of social inequality and tensions, affects everyone from Cape Town to Butterworth, Mangaung, Johannesburg, Mahikeng, and the countless dorpies and villages in between. “Based on projections, if no substantive action is taken the water deficit by 2030 could be between 2.7 and 3.8 billion m3/a (cubic meter per annum) – a gap of about 17% of available surface and groundwater,” says the Water and Sanitation Department’s draft National Water Master Plan. Elsewhere it bluntly states South Africans at 237 litres per capita per day consume 64 litres more than the world average.

South Africa not only has a drought impacting already scarce water resources, but amid political posturing and officialdom’s paralysis the country is also caught amid a drought in water management and governance. DM

Photo: A general view of the critically low Theewaterskloof Dam in Villiersdorp, South Africa, 25 January 2017. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

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