GROUNDUP: OP-ED

Government must do more than talk about the water crisis

By Ariella Scher for GroundUp 5 December 2019

In 2009, the permanent water supply of the communities of Elandskraal, Morarela, Mbuzini, Dichoeng and Tsansabela, in the Sekhukhune District Municipality, was cut off. Photo: CALS

The solution for the Sekhukhune District Municipality’s waterless villages is obvious.

First published by GroundUp

In his most recent address to the nation, President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged the water crisis that our country currently faces and the extent to which access to water for all communities must be improved for both the well-being of our people and the future of our economy.

This is the latest in a series of comments from government – addressing a range of forums from community gatherings to United Nations summits – which recognise the importance of universal access to water, how this is affected by the climate crisis, and the need for effective delivery and clean financial management.

The drought currently afflicting large parts of South Africa should be a primary focus of government planning and budgeting in the coming summer months and beyond. If one listens to the sounds coming from the Union Buildings and other institutions, this appears to be high on the agenda. But on the ground, communities remain desperate, thirsty and unaided in their fight for access to clean drinking water.

For the communities of the Sekhukhune District Municipality in Limpopo, for example, the answer to their immediate misery is obvious. Regardless of the effect of the climate crisis (which cannot be understated), it seems that poor planning, bureaucratic intransigence and simple incompetence are to blame for their woes.

The Sekhukhune District Municipality’s waterless villages

In 2009, the permanent water supply of the communities of Elandskraal, Morarela, Mbuzini, Dichoeng and Tsansabela, in the Sekhukhune District Municipality, was cut off. The communities were left without access to clean drinking water, and had to walk long distances to a crocodile-infested river to get water.

In 2015, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) assisted the communities in approaching the High Court in Pretoria and asking for their permanent water supply to be restored and for urgent interim measures to be put in place to ensure the villages had some access to clean drinking water. The municipality agreed and this settlement was made an order of court, in terms of which the Municipality would supply the villages with water through a reticulated piping system and plastic water tankers which would be filled twice a week, as interim measures while a water treatment plant was constructed for long-term provision. The matter was placed under case management with Judge Fabricius in an effort to closely monitor the Municipality’s compliance and progress.

Unfortunately, the communities have had to return to court several times since then to hold the Municipality accountable for fulfilling its constitutional obligations. Each time, the Municipality has agreed to supply adequate drinking water through interim measures to the communities and report on its progress on the long-term construction of the water treatment plant. Each time, this has been made an order of court. Each time, the Municipality failed to comply with the order. The water treatment plant is still under construction almost five years later, and the villages are still not receiving clean drinking water consistently.

The Municipality’s clear disregard for three prior court orders and its residents’ basic human needs and constitutional rights has recently been exacerbated by the long, dry winter months and the late onset of this year’s summer rains. CALS decided to again approach the court on behalf of the desperate communities.

During a case management meeting on 29 November 2019, Judge Fabricius held the Municipality in contempt of court for again failing to comply with the court order to provide the villages with clean drinking water, in both the short- and long-term.

CALS has undertaken to closely watch the Municipality’s compliance with the order, now that an acting municipal manager has been appointed. Should the acting municipal manager continue his predecessor’s trend of non-compliance, CALS intends asking the court to grant a punitive cost order against him, and to potentially order his arrest. CALS believes that punitive legal measures imposed directly on intransigent officials is an under-utilised and potentially powerful weapon to achieve compliance with court orders in the most desperate of cases. We will not hesitate to wield this weapon in pursuance of our clients’ constitutional rights.

Financial mismanagement and the provision of clean drinking water

In related and equally worrying news, the Polokwane office of the entity overseeing the construction of the Municipality’s delayed water treatment plant, Lepelle Northern Water, was last week raided by the Special Investigating Unit in connection with the construction of the Giyani Water Project. In relation to that raid, chairperson of the parliamentary portfolio committee on Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, Machwene Semenya, commented that it “is unacceptable that the project has not been concluded since its launch in 2014, which robs residents of much-needed water.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Whether or not the construction of the Sekhukhune District Municipality’s water treatment plant has been similarly affected by such alleged corruption, it is unacceptable for the provision of a basic service such as clean drinking water to drag on uncompleted for almost five years.

We therefore welcome Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s undertaking that the National Water and Sanitation Master Plan to ensure water security, launched on 28 November 2019, will include the restructuring of her department and addressing financial mismanagement. We hope that this is an exercise geared towards reducing bureaucratic inefficiencies, and increasing service delivery to our most desperate communities, rather than another expensive and long-winded but ultimately fruitless departmental restructuring exercise. As the Minister herself noted at last Thursday’s launch:

To date, there are still over three million people without access to basic water supply services, while only 64% of households have access to a reliable water supply. With respect to the bulk water resources, on which the country depends, it is projected that demand will grow by 17% in 2030… This demand will only be met if the planned infrastructure is timeously completed and demand growth constrained by appropriate policy interventions coupled with a mixed development approach.”

Collectively, society is facing a climate crisis that requires historic levels of organisation, management and commitment. We cannot begin to combat that crisis if we are failing to complete our most straightforward tasks. We call on the State to follow through on its powerful rhetoric with tangible conduct, and to show our capacity for meeting this challenge. Our communities simply won’t survive without it. DM

Scher is an attorney in the Basic Services Programme at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, Wits University. Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.

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