South Africa


Politics versus nationwide thirst: Water supply problems could sink South Africa

Politics versus nationwide thirst: Water supply problems could sink South Africa
(Photo: / Wikipedia)

The water crisis is getting worse – and this is a trajectory that will remain for years. While water supply systems are complex, the crisis turns out to be a failure of politics, not a failure of technical ability.

While the politicians and lawyers fight over Electoral Commission timetables and candidate registration processes, more people are increasingly suffering from an acute nationwide drought of service delivery. While the focus of the last few years has been on electricity provision, it now appears that problems with supplying water are much more widespread. This is more serious than an electricity crisis, as human beings cannot exist without water.

This has the potential to lead to massive, public displays of anger against those who presided over such a precipitous decline. And the political elites do not appear to be able to implement solutions. The nature of water supply problems means that those who are motivated by short-term gains can do real damage to our society over the longer term.

Supplying water to millions of people around a country as geographically vast as South Africa has many shared similarities with supplying electricity. There has to be a source, while transmission and distribution are difficult, many different pieces of equipment have to work together, and there needs to be sound long-term planning.

However, while the supply of electricity can be increased by humans, the provision of fresh drinking water cannot be easily augmented, as it primarily relies on rain and is vulnerable to climate change patterns.

While politicians like to remind us that “South Africa is a water-scarce country” and that “Gauteng is in a permanent state of drought”, it is important to point out that this cannot absolve them from responsibility.

Currently, despite the fact the Highveld rainy season is still to come, the Vaal Dam River System has plenty of water (for those who are interested, on Sunday morning the Vaal Dam was at 86.5%, Sterkfontein Dam at 100.7%, Grootdraai Dam at 78.9% and Bloemhof was full to the brim at 105%).

Despite that, there have been water supply problems in Gauteng, with Rand Water telling Joburg Water to cut down its demand by 20%. The reasons for this have not been forthcoming. Despite being interviewed twice on the issue on SAfm, Rand Water has not properly explained the problem, though former Water Affairs director-general Mike Muller has suggested that there might have been a loss of production at a pumping plant, which creates supply problems which knock on through the system.

But this is minor in relation to other problems around the country.

On Friday Deputy President David Mabuza went to Kroonstad after huge water supply problems there. The water treatment facility there is not working properly despite the fact it is only a few years old.

Residents in Maluti-a-Phofung have complained about similar problems for years.

All the while, the financial wastage in this sector is immense.

Last week, the new-ish Water Affairs and Sanitation Minister, Senzo Mchunu, said that R3-billion had been spent on the Giyani water project, which was supposed to build a 300km pipeline to supply 55 villages. Those villages are still without water. Mchunu said the problem was caused by a lack of proper planning.

Perhaps. But the simplest of facts remains: R3-billion has been spent and the residents of Giyani still do not have water.

It appears that one of the problems this sector faces is inherent in its very nature. This is a sector that requires many suppliers to do many things that should ultimately work together. In other words, there is a lot of scope for corruption and for people to find a way to escape blame when projects fail.

In 2020, Corruption Watch released a report analysing these problems. It made startling reading, but unfortunately it was released in March, just as the pandemic arrived in South Africa, so it could not get the attention it deserves.

Water Report 2020 Single Pages Final by Daily Maverick on Scribd

The report found that those who are corrupt use three major strategies: 

  • The manipulation of procurement and operational processes; 
  • The influencing of policy and regulatory decisions; and 
  • Taking control of the decision-making sites of key institutions.

In other words, this is about politics. It is within the political process that this corruption occurs and it is politicians who are responsible for this.

If there is no change, the consequences for South Africa will be dire.

While the processes that drive urbanisation are complex and manifold, it may well be that people who cannot get water in one place will simply move to another. This process can take time and may involve young people moving away in search of a better life, leaving their parents and families behind – which is already happening in some parts of Soweto, where people who grow up with no electricity leave their parents behind.

Millions will become angrier by the day.

Some will have no alternative but to rely on the private sector. When Cape Town came perilously close to Day Zero in 2017/18, retailers filled their shelves with plastic bottles of water.

While it would be difficult to criticise people supplying water during a crisis, the sheer amount of wastage and plastic this produces is abominable. It is much more efficient and environmentally neutral to transport water using pipelines than it is through bottles. These bottles do not biodegrade. Pipelines use gravity and electricity. Bottles use plastic, and diesel to transport them. This is not rocket science.

Within this entire collapsing system the citizens of this country get less and less from the state for their hard-earned taxes.

As the evidence of failure by the state mounts there are likely to be political consequences for this dereliction of duty. 

While 10 years ago voters were prepared to move their vote from the ANC to the DA in some areas when services failed in local councils, there is less evidence that this is happening now.

Part of this must be because the DA has decided to focus on identity issues and its rejection of race-based redress is likely too hard to sell to black voters. (And comments like Councillor JP Smith’s statement this week that he would not try to pronounce the name of Abongile Nzelenzele, and that “I’m not even going to try that surname, dude” are likely to be perceived as insulting and racist.)

This could open the door for other players.

The most likely to benefit from this kind of governance failure are the Economic Freedom Fighters and smaller outfits with big promises, like Action SA. 

But it is more likely that many people will simply refrain from voting. They will show their displeasure by ignoring the politicians and the entire system.

This undermines the legitimacy of the state further. And it is entirely legitimate to be angry. Local councillors, whose constituency is often the local branch of the ANC and not the actual voters, do not act when people complain. To many, the only option left is to protest.

The temperature on this issue is only going to rise in the coming months and years. Because few politicians think about the country in the long term, they put very few solutions on the table.

To return to our original subject, the water crisis we have now appears to be getting worse and that trajectory will remain for years. While water supply systems are complex, it turns out to be a failure of politics, not a failure of technical ability. South Africa’s acute water problems cannot be wished away. A reality distortion field doesn’t bring water to taps. A blaster doesn’t fix reticulation systems. Scheming to win power does not win the real war against nationwide thirst. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    If the DA had any sense, it would focus on widely publicising actual service delivery and financial management facts where it governs.

  • André van Niekerk says:

    In addition to water supply systems, a major issue is also the water-, and sewage-, reticulation systems. Water networks are probably much more than halfway through their useful asset life-cycle, i.e. pipe networks are failing at an increasing pace. This not only leads to huge water losses (upwards of 30% in most towns and cities), but can lead to eventual failure to be able to distribute water.

    All municipalities are underspending in asset renewal and maintenance. So all parties are equally responsible. In election years, promises are made to spend capital on “cool” and popular projects. Underground pipe systems do not count as “cool”.

    It is critical that a national survey is done to assess remaining useful asset life, and that municipalities should be required by National Treasury to spend a minimum amount on this. This is an area that should be audited seriously, but it’s not.

    Imagine your town, right now, not having a working sewage treatment plant, or working water-pipes. What will you do?

    • Karl Sittlinger says:

      I don’t think that all parties are at fault here equally, not by a long shot, considering the billions stolen and wasted by the ANC in just the water and sanitation department. I do agree that transparency is key for all parties and their municipalities, and much work needs to be done in this regard, including forcing municipalities to use a set minimum of funds for maintenance.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    A major factor in our water woes is the failing unmaintained infrastructure and sewage systems which can be directly attributed to the ANCs corruption, waste and cadre deployment.

    For a sobering analysis of just how much damage the ANC has done, read the M&G article “Water services worse than in 1994”.

    • Alastair Moffat says:

      Water supply depends on machinery being properly maintained and operated. Unfortunately for the people of South Africa machines do not understand that allowances have to be made for incompetent ANC appointed cadres.

  • John Weaver Weaver says:

    Agh no man, you have all got it wrong. Infrastructure maintenance is a white colonial thing.

  • Trevor Thompson says:

    I am a great believer in the PLOC concept: Plan Lead Organise and Control, or even better, Plan, Implement, Monitor, React.
    It is very difficult to attack any major problem without first having a very good, well-structured plan.
    So in the case of water generally the first requisite in my simplistic mind is to have a proper town plan which covers, short, medium and long-term strategies. Our local METRO does not even have a town planning department anymore. This results in the illegal squatting situation resulting in poor service delivery, protests, destruction of infrastructure, riots, etc. This applies at all levels: municipal, metro, provincial, central government etc.
    Plans need to be monitored against planned implementation targets, and constantly reviewed in terms of performance, replanning, or resource allocation.
    Constant checking of progress should result in the parallel process of ensuring project goals.
    The big rider here is the lack of ability of those responsible to manage projects.
    These are basic tenets of operational and strategic management, and, until we get these right, we will never fix any problems completely and effectively.
    So, start from the beginning and replan, engage experts, apply sound management, and Do it once, do it Right.

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