South Africa


Durban’s R20bn water troubles get deeper and deeper, and there’s no easy solution in sight

Durban’s R20bn water troubles get deeper and deeper, and there’s no easy solution in sight
Residents collect water from a broken pipe sticking out from a collapsed embankment in Amaoti, north of Durban, on 14 April 2022 after flooding that damaged water infrastructure. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

The SA Human Rights Commission hearings into water access in KZN come amid anger and resentment among residents at the quality of water and frequent water outages in eThekwini.

The eThekwini Municipality needs to spend more than R20-billion within the next 10 years to ensure that its water and wastewater systems can support its increasing population, but it simply does not have the money to do so.

That’s according to eThekwini Deputy Mayor Philani Mavundla, who was addressing the South African Human Rights Commission’s (SAHRC) ongoing hearings into water access in KwaZulu-Natal.

He said the council was using ratepayers’ money, which should be allocated for the maintenance and replacement of existing infrastructure, to instead meet the growing water and wastewater demands of its non-paying residents, particularly those in its expanding informal settlements. 

This was “a bit unfair”, he said. “It’s a Catch-22 situation that we find ourselves in.”

Residents living in informal settlements — the city currently budgets R25-million for chemical toilets here, but is trying to increase the amount — were close to outstripping the number of residents in formal ones, he told commissioners Chris Nissen and Philile Ntuli, and Professor Tafadzwanashe Mabhaudhi of the International Water Management Institute.

Mavundla chairs the city’s Human Settlements and Infrastructure Committee. He was joined at the hearings by eThekwini’s head of Water and Sanitation, Ednick Msweli; the city’s legal and compliance chief, Malusi Mhlongo, and the deputy city manager, Sibusiso Makhanya.

The hearings, which continue this week, come amid anger and resentment among residents at the quality of water and frequent water outages in eThekwini. While this was exacerbated by the devastating April floods, opposition parties — and the city’s own internal reports — have long sounded the alarm about poor infrastructure maintenance and the devastating impacts thereof.

Daily Maverick reported on Sunday, 21 August that several residents in the Birchwood area had fallen sick after drinking tap water that is suspected to have been contaminated with effluent. One resident in the area, Rashnie Baijnath, died of severe diarrhoea.

Durban mother dead, scores sick with diarrhoea as polluted tap water confirmed

And while the metro punts itself as a favoured tourist destination, its beaches have had to be closed and swimming banned numerous times over the past two years because of high E. coli levels, the result of sewage spills into the rivers and sea. Incidents of recreational swimmers and surfers falling sick after sea bathing are not uncommon.

Festering mess

Added to this is the ANC-led city’s pussyfooting around employees in its waste units, who frequently strike or embark on go-slows, leaving suburbs and the CBD a festering mess until their demands are met. Some of this uncollected waste finds its way into rivers and the ocean.

Last week, the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO, Palesa Phili, told the newly elected provincial premier, Nomusa Dube-Ncube, at a business breakfast that the province’s only metro was a hard sell to investors due to the high levels of pollution, saying it was “really embarrassing”.

On Monday evening, the city — for the third time this year — issued a notice that most beaches were closed until further notice due to high E. coli levels.  

The beaches were closed to bathing for most of January because of high E. coli levels and again in April through to July after the floods.

Msweli told the commissioners that the city currently has 550 informal settlements and that infrastructure that was supposed to provide interim relief — such as community ablution blocks — was having to be “stretched much longer than it is sustainable to maintain. The facilities are not robust enough to last more than five years and refurbishing them is not cost-effective.”

As a result, the municipality was in the process of transitioning to brick-and-mortar ablutions, he said.

eThekwini consists of 60% rural and informal settlements. Rural areas are metered for water, but collections were “difficult”, he said. Laying infrastructure here was also immensely costly, with one pipe to one house easily stretching over kilometres.

Plans were afoot for a new dam in the form of uMkhomazi Dam, he said, with tariffs currently being negotiated.  

“Until this dam is commissioned, it will not be possible to meet the full demand for water in eThekwini,” said Msweli, but soon after added that the project “is already late… which means we really are going to have a shortage of water”.

He said there were further tough times ahead with the supply coming from Umgeni Water expected to be reduced on an annual basis, presumably because of increased demand from its other clients, although Msweli did not elaborate. Umgeni Water supplies 95% of the city’s water.

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The picture gets even bleaker.

Msweli said that to replace the bulk water infrastructure in eThekwini that had already exceeded its design life would cost about R8.2-billion (although he said this was by now probably closer to R10-billion), and replacing sewerage infrastructure of the same vintage would cost about R4.5-billion. To replace water and sewerage infrastructure that is set to exceed its design life within the next 10 years will cost R4.5-billion for water, and R4.5-billion for sewerage.

Msweli cited a study that found that if infrastructure was to be kept in good condition “so that it doesn’t fail as much as ours fails”, at least 2% of the value of the infrastructure needed to be replaced each year.

Working at 2% annually, he said, it would take eThekwini 50 years to do this. Based on an “old figure”, eThekwini should be spending “about R1.6-billion a year” to maintain its water infrastructure alone.

If that number was updated, it was “more likely to be around R2-billion a year” that needed to be spent. Currently, the city is allocating “about R500-million a year for water infrastructure,” he said.

“But the reality of it is that if you are spending R500-million where you should be spending R2-billion, you lose before you start. That is why our non-revenue [lost] water goes up. Our non-revenue water is [currently] 56%. This is not the norm, it is because of the storm damage that we suffered in the last three months, but even before that it was high, I think at over 40 [percent].”

And there was further bad news. Mavundla said that when areas in the city, particularly rate-paying suburbs, became susceptible to either intermittent services or, in the case of Tongaat, no services at all, it affected the budget.

“Before the floods, the city’s water sales for the month of March in Tongaat were R8.9-million and a further R1.7-million for sanitation services. But after the floods, we could no longer bill that R10.7-million total any more.”

But Tongaat residents, who have been without water since the floods, view it differently.

Don Perumall, the chairperson of the Tongaat Civic Association (TCA), told the commission that Monday, 15 August marked 126 days that Tongaat residents had been without tap water.

Neglect and incompetence

Some Tongaat residents told the commission they believed it was the neglect and incompetence of city employees and leadership that needed to be scrutinised, along with what is perceived to be endemic fraud and corruption at the municipality, if water issues were to be solved.

TCA member Charles Chetty testified that the municipality had ignored warnings from the community that local dams and reservoirs were overflowing and that urgent action was needed during the floods.

He said that instead, the municipality was “too busy forming a way to see how they can now try to get money in by bringing in water tankers”.

“We’ve lost lives, we’ve lost people, we’ve lost property, they did nothing. All they did was to see how money was going to be made,” said Chetty.

RET forum expects to win battle for flood damage repair tenders in KZN

During his testimony, Msweli said the city had a fleet of 130 water tankers, but that it wanted to increase that by 102.

S’bu Zikode, president of the Abahlali baseMjondolo shack dwellers’ movement, testified that thousands of shack dwellers in the city perpetually had limited access to potable water, and it was only since the “middle class and rich people” had been affected that the issue was being discussed.

“But the question is, what do we do? How do people survive? Of course, the very famous ‘Faka Amanzi Operation’, or ‘Operation Self-Connection’ has been the answer. So, our communities are forced, really forced, to connect to the water systems themselves. And when they do so, it is called criminality,” said Zikode.

“I haven’t really made any reference to the recent floods because the message I want to put out here is that we have lived our lives without water. Now the question is, would we have such an inquiry if it wasn’t for the floods?”

Also appearing before the commission, Ntuzuma Section B resident Sanele Moltshwa said community members in rural areas were “scared” to speak out about water challenges.

“I’m nervous as well because I do not know what this might lead to. I don’t know if I’ve upset people that have power, because that’s basically what happens when you come from our neighbourhoods or townships. The level of intimidation exists out there. So people are afraid to speak.”

Umgeni Water Board’s Bheki Mbambo, a senior manager in the infrastructure development division, told the panel that water leaks and water theft were massive issues, with monthly losses in the province of between 35% to 40% of water purchased, or roughly 25 million kilolitres.

“Water losses are the elephant in the country, not just in the room. We have created a division that focuses on water conservation and demand management to access the real problems on the ground when there are water losses. It comes down to creating local projects which are community driven and then fixing local leakages.”

Mbambo said delays in rolling projects, over and above the recent KZN floods, included tender appeals, which had become “one of the most significant problems affecting the start of construction”.

Other hindrances, he said, were delays by National Treasury in authorising approvals on variation orders (changing the scope of work once it has commenced, affecting costs), delays from both Transnet and Sanral in granting access to infrastructure under their jurisdiction, accessing private land, and site disruptions by business forums, local labour and communities.

Umgeni Water provides services to King Cetshwayo, iLembe, uMgungundlovu, Harry Gwala and Ugu district municipalities, Msunduzi Local Municipality and eThekwini. DM


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