South Africa


Tiers of state come together, right now, over water – but dam levels continue to drop

Photo: Berg River Dam by Daniel Saaiman - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 (Wikimedia Commons)

On Tuesday afternoon, representatives from the Western Cape government and the National Department of Water and Sanitation briefed media at Parliament. The primary announcement was regarding the release of water from the Berg River Dam to the Misverstand Dam to avert looming disaster in the area. But the decision communicates something else, too. New Minister Gugile Nkwinti wants media and citizens to understand that various tiers of government are now working together.

Despite aggressive water conservation and demand management, the capacity of dams continues to decrease week on week, with their lowest levels expected to be reached in May to June.

Further, the Voëlvlei (Gouda) and Misverstand (Porterville) dams have reached dangerously low levels at 13.75% and 13.26% respectively. In these two dams, there are physical constraints preventing abstraction from the lower levels – meaning they are, effectively, near empty.

Without additional water supply, Misverstand could fail by 24 April 2018, Minister of Water and Sanitation Gugile Nkwinti said on Tuesday.

While a great deal of media and public attention has been given to the drought as it affects the City of Cape Town, the impacts are province-wide, and today we must focus on the dire situation developing in the West Coast District Municipal Area, which includes the municipalities of Berg River, Saldanha Bay and Swartland,” he said.

Anton Bredell, MEC of local government, environmental affairs and development planning in the Western Cape, told media that the loss of Misverstand would force Saldanha Bay to get water from Voëlvlei. This would have a devastating impact on 22 other towns depending on this already critically strained resource.

For this reason, the national department authorised the release of water supply from the Berg River Dam to supplement Misverstand Dam on the lower Berg River. This would avert failure of Misverstand by providing water supply until at least the end of July, by which time some rainfall was expected.

It was crucial to get all departments on board. The due date was actually today or tomorrow, otherwise we are in trouble,” said Bredell.

The urgency was due to the water needing several days to travel 138km to its destination through the creation of an artificial “fair weather flood”, explained adviser on strategic and emergency projects, Trevor Balzer.

The national department is also in talks with Western Cape Premier Helen Zille over the feasibility of an emergency modular 10-megalitre-per-day desalination plant for Saldanha Bay, and an in-principle agreement has been reached.

In the meantime, five million cubic metres of water will be released, starting between 17 and 20 April, to ensure it reaches the Misverstand Dam by 24 April. Water will also be supplemented into the Berg River Dam through an emergency pumping scheme from Theewaterskloof Dam. Should there be any significant rainfall that results in run-off during the operation, the extent of the release will be revised.

At the same time, said Nkwinti, a Joint Enforcement and Monitoring Plan will be implemented to ensure there is no illegal water abstraction from the Berg River during and after the release. He further warned citizens to be careful of localised flooding adjacent to the river, to prevent drownings.

But besides the practicalities, there was a bigger message, too. Nkwinti was at pains to drive home that the national, provincial and municipal governments were working together at last. To date, a lack of co-ordination has been a challenge between various departments and tiers of government.

Premier Helen Zille, for example, slapped Nkwinti’s predecessor Nomvula Mokonyane with a R3.5-million bill for the cost of water infrastructure; Mokonyane, for her part, periodically placed responsibility for the management of the water crisis at local or provincial level; meanwhile, tensions over budgets not spent on drought relief simmered.

Bredell said the decision to release additional supply from the Berg River Dam had followed a series of “difficult” meetings, the most critical of which had taken place on Friday.

On Tuesday, however, Nkwinti appeared pleased with the unified front.

Nkwinti – who took over a challenging portfolio from Mokonyane earlier this year – has had his hands full.

I am going through a very intensive induction,” he told media.

He was at pains to emphasise that the Constitution both underlines the right to sufficient food and water, and “enjoins the State to take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources to achieve the progressive realisation of the rights contained in Section 27”.

He also cited the National Water Services Act of 1997 and the National Water Act of 1998; as well as the Intergovernmental Relations Framework Act of 2005, which established a framework for national, provincial and local governments – while distinctive – to work together to achieve the constitutional rights of the people.

Nkwinti said he had met twice already with the premier and Bredell to form a strategic partnership so that the three spheres of government could “speak with one voice” and be “on the same wavelength”.

Our technical teams must work together to ensure that what we decide is implemented across the three spheres of government,” he said.

He further emphasised national government’s responsibilities in the equitable allocation of water and redistribution of water, as well as its sustainable use.

Referring again to the Constitution, he said:

The state must take reasonable measures. It says ‘the state’. Not a department. All of us together.”

And the three tiers of government have reason to work together. While there were fewer journalists present than one came to expect at the height of #DayZero hysteria, it was clear there was still considerable concern from government over sustainable water supply.

The combined capacity of the 43 dams monitored on a weekly basis was 16.52% on 15 April 2018, compared with 22.1% at the same time last year, the Minister said in his statement. This is the lowest recorded dam level in the last 31 years.

As for the six dams serving the City of Cape Town, Drakenstein and Stellenbosch local municipalities, the West Coast District Municipality and agriculture, capacity this week decreased by 0.585 to 20.48%. The system was at 23.53% at the same time last year, Nkwinti said.

Municipalities, too, should intensify restrictions and “revisit” implementation plans for augmentation plans to speed up delivery, he added.

Asked what the outlook was for farmers, Balzer said it was impossible to predict before the analysis for the next hydrological year was discussed in September, but that at least two seasons of well above average rainfall would be required for the water system to stabilise.

If there is below average rainfall [this winter], 2019 could be another difficult year,” he said.

Nkwinti inherited a department arguably in crisis. In February 2018, Scopa called for a full inquiry following the hearing on irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure. Some analysts have compared the water shortage to the energy crisis. So it was illuminating to hear Nkwinti say the department was considering adapting an Eskom model of regulation to turn around water management in South Africa.

Asked what he had in mind, Nkwinti said it would begin with five strategic pillars – managing the water value chain, a national authority, establishing a national regulator, a draft master plan, and institutional and organisational management.

There was at present far too much confusion and uncertainty around water management in the country, he said. There were so many water boards that hardly anyone could account for them, and there was uncertainty over what occurred from source to transmission and distribution.

The source is not a problem,” he said. “There must be certainty in the country.”

Further, he said, district municipalities were contesting with local municipalities, which raised the question of why there isn’t a national water resources and services authority, or a regulator.

That’s what I’m calling the Eskom model – that will create certainties. Where you don’t have a situation where we as water [departments] don’t talk to Cogta (Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs),” he said.

That is my view, coming into the department, having followed carefully the handover notes.”

Reading between the lines, Nkwinti is introducing some heavy-duty co-ordination and streamlining. And, if his promised timeline is anything to go by, he’s going to get cracking within the next few months.

Bluntly, this also means centralisation, with all the pros and cons that entails. But for beleaguered municipalities who have been waiting for drought relief, it could, for now, be very good news. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted