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Cabinet asked to approve legislative changes for better municipal water delivery

Cabinet asked to approve legislative changes for better municipal water delivery
From left: Minister of Water and Sanitation Senzo Mchunu. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Lulama Zenzile) | (Photo: Kabelo Mokoena)

As the National Water Resource Infrastructure Agency Bill shakes up how water is managed at national level, Cabinet will be asked to approve changes at municipalities for better water delivery.

The move to amend the Water Services Act comes against the backdrop of insecure and inadequate water supplies to Johannesburg hospitals, and the SA Human Rights Commission’s scathing findings of how KwaZulu-Natal water delivery violated basic human rights.

“… (C)hallenges in access to sufficient water are not related to the scarcity of water resources itself, but more to the delivery of water by municipalities to customers. These delivery issues are mostly occasioned by poor management, the lack of proper planning, the lack of accountability and leadership, and the failure to prioritise critical components necessary for effective service delivery,” said the KZN Water Inquiry Report.

On Tuesday, it emerged that Water and Sanitation wants to correct shortcomings with amendments to the Water Services Act that must provide “for the rights of access to basic water supply and basic sanitation” and national norms and standards, and also for tariffs.

The amendments would focus on strengthening operating licence requirements for water providers – not consultants, but what the Act describes as those supplying water, including a council, NGO, a private sector or a public-private entity – and on strengthening ministerial powers to intervene in cases of repeat offenders, according to Water and Sanitation Director-General, Sean Phillips.

“We will ask Cabinet (on Wednesday) to approve the amendments for public comments…” he told Daily Maverick on the sidelines of Tuesday’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) meeting on several departments’ unauthorised expenditure.

Cooperative Governance has registered 144 municipalities as water service authorities. But many don’t supply water properly, reliably and to the required cleanliness standard.

With falling water revenues, councils often found themselves in a downward spiral of having to pay for bulk water bought to sell on to residents, but unable to generate revenues to, for example, maintain and improve infrastructure. 

According to Phillips, in eThekwini, leaks cost the metro more than 50% of its water before it even reached customers.

In contrast, the national average is 35% water loss due to leaks, according to official statistics that also show one in 10 wastewater treatment plants is dysfunctional, and just over four in 10 are in poor condition.

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa faces multiple water crises across all provinces and sectors

Alongside the proposed Water Services legislative amendments, a broader review of the local government fiscal framework from implementing both constitutional and statutory mandates to set standards, expenditure and revenue generation.  

If Cabinet approves the water services amendment proposals, Water and Sanitation will release these for public comment. Once that’s done, the draft amendment Bill returns to Cabinet for approval to table in Parliament.  

It’s unlikely these legislative amendments will come to the national legislature before Parliament rises for the 2024 elections.

However, Phillips said it’s hoped to be different for the National Water Resource Infrastructure Agency – “We are hopeful it will be passed before the elections.”

On Tuesday, MPs on the water and sanitation committee were briefed on the National Water Resource Infrastructure Agency (NWRIA) Bill. It effectively combines functions of the water department and its 3,000 employees doing infrastructure maintenance, the Water Trading Entity that, simply put, bills and raises revenue also from big companies like Eskom and the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA) that must finance new infrastructure.

It’s all about the money, bluntly put.

The TCTA has no assets or anything that could get better interest rates on the market it goes to to borrow money or get credit. Water and Sanitation can’t get more money in the current crunch on public finances – highlighted by short-term measures like freezing vacancies, cutting catering, limiting travel and such.

To start fixing broken water infrastructure from pipes to dams, a rejig at national level anticipates the NWRIA would leverage assets to raise funds to improve infrastructure or additional assets. Also, NWRIA would put into one place raw water revenue matters, currently handled by the Water Trading Entity and the department.

Read more in Daily Maverick: New agency to fund, fix and expand South Africa’s vital water infrastructure

The NWRIA Bill is one of those structural reforms driven by Operation Vulindlela, a joint initiative of National Treasury and the Presidency.

This draft law, alongside the proposed Water Services Act amendments, could be a step in the right direction, if it brings about the correction of South Africa’s water regimen.

Municipal water outages, sewage spilling on to roads and into people’s homes, and water that’s not safe to drink fall short of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights that provides everyone the right to “access sufficient food and water” in Section 27, and in Section 24, the right to “an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being…” DM


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