Drought, disease and destitution: Minister Senzo Mchunu reflects on a rocky first year in office
Senzo Mchunu’s first year in the hot seat has seemingly been consumed with stabilising his rocky department, while efforts to get water to desperate communities are yet to yield results.
‘Water is life, sanitation is dignity,” is the mantra the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) stands by in ensuring it meets its mandate of effectively managing the nation’s water resources for current and future generations.
Yet, over 16 years, access to drinking water has only improved by five percentage points, while sanitation jumped by about 20, according to Statistics South Africa. Marking a year in office, Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu said during a press briefing that while water bodies existed near communities, they were still not able to have water in their households.
Incomplete and abandoned projects and incapacity within the department had been the stumbling blocks to his office delivering water services to some communities. The minister added that there had been an outcry earlier in 2022 from water authorities over incapacity and meeting the demand of water service delivery.
“I am here admitting that we do have problems even when it comes to water authorities,” he said. “There’s also desperation on the side of communities… even where you have dams that have been built over years, including those that have been built after democracy (1994), there was no immediate attention to reticulating water to communities around those dams, including around some of the key water schemes that draw water from such dams to communities nearby or along the route of such schemes.”
Over the past week alone, Johannesburg had experienced water outages at the Eikenhof pump station, as reservoirs were strained in trying to meet demand in areas such as Jan Hofmeyer, Newclare, Westbury and Westdene, environment and infrastructure services MMC Michael Sun said.
Mchunu also said in his briefing that the lack of water supply and access for residents surrounding water bodies often left them destitute, while it took a long time to address the problems.
“There are others who are outside of such routes and therefore the issue of people calling for the delivery of water as communities and households is a real one.
“Unfortunately it has taken us time as a department, historically, to come to terms with the fact that we have to do more than getting concerned about bulk and about dams and those issues… we need to shift our attention to issues of reticulation – that is, actual delivery of water to communities for domestic use and for businesses and agriculture. That is how we appear to be lagging behind when it comes to the delivery of water to the people, as opposed to availing water generally in water and dams, etc.
“Dams are full, but taps are dry,” the minister said, quoting a headline.
In eThekwini, residents who have not been hit by water outages must still contend with rivers that are full of sewage and taps that carry the risk of disease. Daily Maverick previously reported that the death of a Durban woman in the Birchwood area was caused by diarrhoea as a result of polluted tap water, a consequence of water infrastructure damage during the April floods.
This comes as the City of eThekwini’s ongoing hearings into water access have found that R20-billion is needed over 10 years to address water demands. Beaches have also been closed as a result of high levels of E. coli caused by sewage spills.
Mchunu said the floods in KwaZulu-Natal created huge challenges in meeting water supply demand, while droughts, such as those in Gqeberha, and across the Eastern Cape, had added stress to an already stretched department.
“With Day Zero knocking at our door, we’re working well with the provincial and municipal governments to avert [Day Zero] for now,” the minister said.
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Day Zero has been a looming threat over Gqeberha, with its dams running dry and many communities struggling to access enough water. The minister said Gqeberha has been prioritised and that the department is exploring solutions to elongate water availability.
The DWS has also renewed and tightened partnerships with the private sector, which it says have already worked out, including joint efforts with the Lebalelo Water User Association and Ivanplats Mine that spawned the Vaal Gamagara project, as well as a scheme to draw water from the De Hoop Dam in Limpopo, undertaken with mines and the association.
Regarding his department’s own capacity, Mchunu said filling vacant positions has been instrumental in building a competent department that can deliver services and meet the needs of destitute communities – things beset by delays over the years. In addition, projects such the uMkhomazi Water Project in KwaZulu-Natal were set to deliver water to five million people and industries.
The minister’s first year has seemingly been consumed with stabilising a department that has been on rocky shores since his appointment. While Mchunu mentioned several projects being set up, along with others that have been restarted after having sat idle, they are yet to yield results.
“As a department tasked with a resource as precious as water, which is not only vital for life but also for economic development, we are very alive to the task at hand and we remain resolute in our stance.” DM/OBP