Opinionista Helen Zille 30 July 2017

From the Inside: Day Zero and the emerging water economy

According to media reports, Stellenbosch University’s Water Institute has predicted that the world’s next major wars will be fought over access to water. And, if things carry on the way they are, the first skirmishes could break out right here in southern Africa, as we try to preserve this precious resource while our supply shrinks, and our population grows.

The term “Day Zero” has been coined to describe the day – which we are doing everything possible in the Western Cape to avoid – when the demand for water to meet essential needs exceeds the supply. According to current projections, unless we take decisive action, Day Zero could arrive in March 2018. Despite the recent rains, Western Cape dams are still on average only 26% full – about 20% lower than the same time last year.

Have we been lax in allowing things to reach this point?

As recently as mid-2014 the six major dams supplying the City of Cape Town and its surrounding municipalities were 100% full. But things changed dramatically thereafter, as the impact of drought, one of the worst in a century, turned abundance into acute scarcity of surface water supply. The impact was immediate, dramatically undercutting the core assumption of the City’s water plan that winter rainfall was largely predictable within a certain range.

But yes, we should have had a fall-back position, a Plan B, to cater for this eventuality. Now we have to play catch-up.

Working with national government and local authorities we declared a disaster, as defined in law, which enables us to divert funds and get around red-tape barriers to implement solutions, until normal rainfall patterns resume.

However, we can no longer simply assume this will happen. Climate change is hitting us hard, and new weather patterns are diverting the Antarctic’s cold fronts south of our shoreline, before they hit land. We are anticipating that this could be a sustained trend, although no one can tell us for sure. Unpredictable weather patterns are a feature of climate change. With this level of uncertainty, it is sensible to prepare for a future of increased water scarcity.

Government’s role in dealing with this crisis falls into two categories:

  1. preserving and saving our current water resources; and
  2. finding new sources.

The primary role belongs to local government because of its responsibility for basic service delivery, including potable water. The City of Cape Town has adopted a two-prong approach towards building water resilience:

  1. Saving water through conservation and “demand management” (the euphemism for water restrictions). This programme has actually been in place for a decade, but is being accelerated. It involves the rapid detection and fixing of leaks, adjusting water pressure, tightening water restrictions and increasing public communication. As a result, the City’s water consumption has dropped from approximately 930-million litres a day in December 2016 to 630-million litres a day in July 2017. The aim is to push this down further to just 500-million litres a day as soon as possible.
  2. Facilitating private sector solutions to water extraction, water purification and recycling in order to increase the supply of non-surface water as an alternative to relying so heavily on our rivers and dams.

The City recently called for information on all new water technologies in three main categories: the sustainable extraction of water from aquifers; desalination, and water re-use. The submissions were very encouraging, and will inform a major tender process, due to commence soon, to harness the latest technologies. The disaster declaration will enable the City to expedite the interminably long tender process.

At the same time, home-based water saving devices (for private purchase) are being exhibited in shopping centres across the province.

I have little doubt we will soon have “lift-off” in the emerging water economy, with the potential to create hundreds of new jobs. I have experienced yet again why entrepreneurs are the most precious resource a society has when it comes to solving seemingly intractable problems.

But what about the role of national government in helping us deal with the water crisis?

Essentially, the department of Water and Sanitation is responsible for constructing and maintaining South Africa’s major storage dams and their related infrastructure.

This is where our greatest problem lies. The recent disaster declaration cannot help us solve it because the national department has simply run out of money.

Furthermore, national Treasury has turned off the tap, noting that the Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation is R4.3-billion in the red, leaving contractors unpaid for more than six months because “internal controls, project management and contract management have collapsed”.

The Minister of Water and Sanitation, Nomvula Mokonyane, is reported to have intervened in the allocation of various tenders, ranging from the Lesotho Highlands scheme to the raising of the Clanwilliam dam wall. Apart from causing lengthy delays in these projects, the allegations against the minister are reportedly being investigated by both the public protector and the Special Investigation Unit (the Hawks).

In the midst of this multifaceted crisis, the department is using money from water sales, previously used for infrastructure maintenance, to pay salaries instead. As a result, the province’s water infrastructure is crumbling.

This is where the oversight role of the provincial government becomes crucial. Senior officials in relevant provincial departments (specifically agriculture and environmental affairs) have been visiting the major dams. Their reports (accompanied by photographs illustrating the decay) crossed my desk this week. The situation is cause for serious concern.

Take the Voelvlei dam, an important source of water both for the City of Cape Town and towns on the drought-stricken West Coast. Voelvlei is an “off-channel dam”, which means it is not situated in the path of a river. During winter, water has to be diverted from several nearby rivers through a network of canals in order to fill the dam. This requires a high level of infrastructural maintenance, both of weirs in rivers to divert water and the canal network linking rivers to the dam. The national department’s failure to remove silt from the Leeurivier weir during the last season led to a loss of 7’5-million cubic metres during 2016. This amount of water would have been enough to service the whole of Cape Town (under current water saving measures) for at least two weeks.

And more water is lost in the canal system, where the deterioration of the concrete slabs and joints allows a lot to drain away.

Because of this crisis, and despite the fact that maintenance of state water infrastructure is not a provincial competence, the provincial government is having to divert millions from other projects for this essential work, otherwise Day Zero will become unavoidable.

We cannot escape the domino effect of a corrupt and badly managed national department. The consequences are legion. By diverting money to deal with the national government’s responsibilities, we not only short-change our own, we also risk forfeiting our clean audits for spending money on functions that do not fall within our mandate. We will be writing to the auditor-general to explain this crisis and seek condonation. And, once we have done their work, we will also send an invoice to the national department of Water and Sanitation (not that it will make any difference).

If they can’t “pay back the money”, what consequences will the national minister and her department face? It is safe to predict that the answer is: None.

A capable state operating under the rule of law is the most fundamental requirement for the success of any country. In a democracy, people get the government the majority voted for, which is the government they deserve. But does everyone else deserve these consequences too? No one escapes the clutches of a corrupt and failing state. The good news is that, in a democracy, people also have the power to do something about it. DM


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