Maverick Citizen

UTILITY CRISIS

Joburg civil society water crisis forum established after tense meeting between officials and residents

Joburg civil society water crisis forum established after tense meeting between officials and residents
Organisations such as JoburgCAN, the South African Water Caucus, and Action for Accountability were present at the weekend meeting with utility officials. (Photo: WaterCAN)

The forum will tackle water challenges, advocate for transparency and lobby for modifications of the current system.

Johannesburg residents and members of civil society put officials from Rand Water, Johannesburg Water and the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) in the hot seat during a water crisis meeting in Braamfontein, Johannesburg on Saturday. 

Burning questions ranging from inaccurate water meter readings, corruption, quality of water, water tankers, finances, and transparency 

City of Johannesburg was notably absent from the meeting with residents, despite an invitation from facilitator and WaterCAN manager Ferrial Adam.

The meeting was facilitated by WaterCAN, an initiative of Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse that advocates for protecting South Africa’s water resources.

Following the meeting with water authorities, civil society organisations proposed the formation of a forum, which will include senior representatives from the Department of Water and Sanitation, Rand Water, Johannesburg Water and, hopefully, the City of Johannesburg.

“We want people who can give answers to questions and who can action items,” said Adam, explaining the forum’s purpose.

“That forum would ensure that crucial information is available to residents and that responses to the water crisis are coordinated. We want timelines, plans, budgets,” said Adam.

Johannesburg water meeting

Johannesburg residents and members of civil society at the weekend meeting. (Photo: WaterCAN)

‘No quick fixes’

Present at Saturday’s meeting were organisations such as JoburgCAN (which represents numerous resident associations), the South African Water Caucus, and Action for Accountability (which also represents a large number of different communities. The Helen Suzman Foundation, Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, Water Crisis Committee, and the Organisation Against Tax Abuse also attended the meeting.

Sean Phillips, Director General of the Department of Water and Sanitation was part of a panel, along with Logan Munsamy — who manages operations and maintenance of water and sewer infrastructure at Johannesburg Water — and Rand Water’s COO Mahlomola Mehlo. They provided an overview of how the water system works.

“As responsible officials, we mustn’t promise quick fixes, we can’t tell people their problems will be resolved tomorrow when they won’t be resolved tomorrow,” said Phillips.

This was a response to an attendee asking that over and above the justifications for the lack of water the officials should consider apologising and telling people what can be done to have water in their taps now.

Daily Maverick and other media have reported extensively on the toll the water cuts have taken on Johannesburg residents’ quality of life. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Water is life – stop playing with our lives, say Joburg residents 

Phillips also went on to say, “I am sorry that the Lesotho Highlands Water Project is nine years behind schedule.” 

The Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) would supply Johannesburg and Gauteng with water and mitigate the scarcity the province faces. Although underway, the LHWP saw the completion date pushed back by nine years to 2028.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Can anyone hear the socioeconomic and environmental alarm bells on Lesotho Highlands Water Project?

Sean Phillips

Director General of the Department of Water and Sanitation, Sean Phillips speaking to concerned Johannesburg residents about the water crisis, in Braamfontein Johannesburg. (Photo: WaterCAN)

Communications failings

Senior manager of operations at Johannesburg Water Logan Munsamy admitted that the water authorities’ communication with communities could be better and that the two entities are working to ensure that coherent and effective communication would be forthcoming. 

Johannesburg residents have found themselves without water for months. Communities such as Crosby, and Hursthill served by the Brixton Reservoir have “historical changes” and “unique challenges”. In extreme cases, residents have reported not having water for up to seven months.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Water shortages 

Munsamy said there are plans to upgrade infrastructure and build capacity but stated that Johannesburg Water is struggling to keep up with consumer demand in certain areas. In these instances, the utility tends to “throttle” or cut off the water supply to replenish reservoirs and stabilise the system

“We understand that with the tough economic times, people are renting out the back rooms and cottages in their property for an income but this is part of what strains water supply, you go from having 2-4 people in the property to 6-8,” said Munsamy.

Logan Munsamy

Senior manager of operations at Johannesburg Water Logan Munsamy. (Photo: WaterCAN)

Utility funding issues and infrastructure

“There is a backlog of funding we have had for years, we have always had plans and projections but the lack of resources is a challenge,” said Munsamy.

Munsamy pointed out that the entity is at the mercy of the city’s political and financial decision-making. This led to a question about the absence of the City of Johannesburg who were invited but didn’t avail themselves, according to WaterCAN’s Adam.

Munsamy said Johannesburg Water receives R1-billion from government but, ideally, they need R2-billion to carry out maintenance and address all other issues to make the system effective.

Rand Water COO Mahlomola Mehlo gave a presentation explaining factors contributing to water shortages in Gauteng, including population growth, old infrastructure, water leaks and rolling blackouts. He added that consumers need to use water sparingly.

WaterCAN’s Ferrial Adam retorted, “Consumers might understand that we need to reduce, it’s just that we are so angry. Climate change does call for reducing but it’s hard to have that conversation when we don’t have water in our taps”.

Mehlo said Rand Water is employing water recycling, reclaiming, and groundwater to supplement the water supply, adding that with rolling blackouts beng rife, alternative power supply such as hydropower is the future. 

“We have a number that are not going to get off the grid tomorrow but we have a hydropower and solar power beat that has been inducted. We went to Lesotho to study what they’re doing there, we also acquired huge generators strategically placed,” said Mehlo.

He said the aim of the utilities was to not only get off the grid but hopefully help provide power as well.

Forum formation

Commenting on the formation of the forum, Adam said it aims to gain transparency on data, infrastructure and water shifting to create consumer education and awareness campaigns on saving water. It also aims to lobby for more funds for Johannesburg Water expenditure. 

“The City of  Johannesburg council is the political entity which controls the budget for JW [Johannesburg Water], its wholly owned entity. We want to know why JW has, on paper, an accumulated surplus of R12.155-billion (according to the JW annual report 2021/22), but cannot access this as it goes to the CoJ as the shareholder,” WaterCAN said in a statement.

“Let’s not stop being angry, let’s not go on the back foot, let’s keep the pressure on and find constructive ways to get to a solution. I know some of it seems like we’ll probably be dead before there is a solution but let’s keep trying,” said Adam. DM

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