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From the Inside: From hot water to thin ice on the Day Zero trajectory

Helen Zille is Premier of the Western Cape. See her Wikipedia profile.

We in the Western Cape have a fundamentally different approach to the role of partnerships with the private sector. Policy approaches make the difference between success or failure, and they need to be thoroughly aired, even in a crisis.

As we try to implement plans to meet the unthinkable event of a major metro running out of water, there are inspiring and disheartening moments; times when catastrophe seems inevitable, and times when one is confident of pulling through.

The most difficult challenge to manage is the avalanche of advice and admonition that lands on my desk each day.

The question for a non-expert like me is: who should I listen to? Who has the best, most honest, most accurate advice? And how do I weigh up the validity of contradictory information? How do I foresee unintended consequences?

I am used to evaluating these questions. But never before have the answers mattered so much. Never before have my decisions potentially meant the difference between successful adaptation and catastrophe for millions of people.

This is where the quality of professionals, in their capacity as government officials, really matters. And I am pleased to say there are excellent professionals in all three spheres of government whose advice I can rely on.

Equally, there are outstanding professionals in the private sector, but as a lay person, I am not in a good position to evaluate competing claims or offers. This is where I must rely on the experts, both inside and outside government. Learning about this complex new field in so short a time has been like drinking from a fire-hydrant at full volume!

Neither did I anticipate how fraught water politics would be, and by this I do not merely mean between politicians (which goes without saying). I mean among experts, and practitioners as well.

There are intense disagreements and divergent approaches on the best ways of managing and augmenting water. There are also disagreements on cost, quality, projected volumes, time scale and environmental impact of a range of different methods. And if the decisions I take, within this cacophony, turn out to have been wrong, it will all seem so obviously clear to everyone, in retrospect, why they were wrong! Especially when the consequences are so serious.

In such circumstances it is useful to start with the things that all the experts agree on:

  • We cannot rely on predicted rainfall any more. In 2017 the SA Weather Service forecast a wet winter, with higher than normal rainfall. It turned out to be one of the driest on record, following on from two previous dry years. This pitched us into the most prolonged drought on record. According to the latest statistics, one-in-400-year event. (See map below)

  • This was something government planning could not accommodate. Planning is based on a range of scenarios, which can encompass the “once-in-50-years” exception. But official planning cannot accommodate a “black swan” event. If our plans in every portfolio had to accommodate events so rare that they defy prediction, we would have to spend huge amounts of money, across every portfolio, on facilities and infrastructure we would mostly never use.
  • This approach to “planning for the exception” applies to governments everywhere. As a result, most governments have a disaster management function to deal with negative unforeseen circumstances. In our system, this crosses all three spheres of government, to cater for the “black swan” events, or “acts of God”, as they arise. Depending on the event, each sphere contributes to the solution, according to its constitutional mandates. In an officially declared disaster, money is released to deal with it, primarily from national government coffers because local and provincial government cannot set aside contingency reserves large enough to deal with major, unforeseen catastrophes.
  • Within normal planning parameters, the expert forecasters predicted that the impact of climate change and long dry spells would be felt in the mid-2020s. Taking all factors into consideration, the Department of Water and Sanitation’s first augmentation schemes were due to come online in 2022.
  • These early augmentation schemes focused on extending the existing dam network. The first mega desalination plant, according to the water plan, would only be needed in 2029.
  • When water shortages were predicted during the 1990s, the City of Cape Town motivated and succeeded in driving through a decision to construct the Berg River Dam, despite strong resistance from some in the national department. This dam, with others in the Western Cape Water Supply system, was supposed to provide enough water until 2022, by which time the national department would have extended the existing dam infrastructure. This project has now been “fast-tracked” to 2021!
  • The national government has declined to bring these plans further forward or provide any additional money for augmentation schemes to help Cape Town through the crisis (except R20-million to assist with drilling into the Table Mountain Group Aquifer).

This is why the minister keeps repeating the same message (as she did last week at the Cape Town Press Club): Cape Town will only avoid Day Zero by saving more water. The City’s first small-scale emergency aquifer extraction projects will come online in May. Even though this is an unforeseeable once-in-400-year drought, the national department will not make extra money available to augment the provision of bulk water supply, which is its constitutional mandate. If Cape Town wants more water than what current supply can provide, residents must pay more, even if they are using much less.

And anyone who disagrees with this approach is merely “politicising” water and causing division!

Local and provincial government have been the intermediaries to convey Mokonyane’s message, to the point of profoundly irritating Capetonians who have replied that it is government’s duty to get the supply-side right. Their anger boiled over when the City sought to balance its budget by imposing an additional water levy (because revenues were falling as people used – and paid for – less water). Unsurprisingly, residents refused.

And, in this perfect storm, we are now officially counting the days till Day Zero, when the City has to implement disaster water rationing.

Into this vacuum came the multiplicity of voices proposing solutions – from barges to bladders, icebergs, and cloud-seeding, water-from-air, water-from-muddy riverbeds and dry dams, not to mention a range of reclamation and desalination options.

And only now, because an official disaster has been declared, can I take decisions that do not strictly fall within a provincial government mandate, and shortcut the interminable bureaucratic processes.

Even at this late stage, there are potential solutions out there. But the terrible dilemma is this: The budgets to fund our core constitutional mandates (which do not include bulk water supply) have already been slashed to the bone as a result of the recession and the drop in projected tax revenue. If we borrow money for the water augmentation schemes and distribution schemes we so desperately need in order to avert Day Zero, how will we pay it back and fulfil our mainline constitutional mandates in education, health, transport etc for the rest of the financial year, and for the duration of the medium-term expenditure framework?

The frank answer is: we can’t. Something is going to have to give.

So I have to go through all the necessary legal steps to recover the money from the national department, for what we will have to spend to avert this crisis in the short term. They, in turn, will probably hold firm, arguing that although Cape Town has slashed water use by 50%, kept water use as low as it was 15 years ago despite demographic growth of 30% and fixed leaks to a competitive international standard, demand has still not been reduced sufficiently.

Therefore, local consumers must pay for any augmentation they may require ahead of the dates set in the long-term plan.

This is the rock-and-hard-place scenario that will probably only be resolved in a court of law.

But we cannot wait till then. Day Zero will be upon us long before this.

Facing this dilemma, I asked to meet water entrepreneurs this week, together with officials and independent experts, to hear some of their ideas for augmenting, packaging and distributing emergency (and long-term) water supplies. On Monday I will be meeting our procurement experts to see which of the proposed solutions might be implementable with minimal delays under disaster management regulations.

By Wednesday I have to make major presentations to hospitals, clinics and schools, on how they will continue functioning in the event of a water shutdown, a very expensive (but essential) endeavour. Government cannot do this alone. More than ever before, we have to give substance to the province’s catchphrase: Better Together.

And by this I do not mean relying on handouts from “corporate social responsibility” programmes. I mean building a new water economy that can change the way we produce, collect, store, purify, reticulate, consume and recycle water; and change the average citizen’s approach to using and conserving this precious resource.

As I listened to the many proposals emanating from the private sector, I asked the same questions:

  • How long will your method take to get drinking water (of acceptable quality) into the system?
  • At what cost per kilolitre?
  • At what volume?
  • Is it sustainable?
  • What are the possible environmental impacts?
  • What are the blockages to implementation?
  • Are the blockages in the province’s capacity to remove?
  • If not, could “disaster powers” be invoked to remove them?
  • What guarantees can you produce that you will deliver if we give you the go-ahead?
  • Are there any unintended consequences that we can identify now?

Over the course of two days, I saw once again what a powerful entrepreneurial spirit we have in South Africa. The bigger the crisis, the bigger the opportunities our entrepreneurs create.

As I listened, I thought back to the energy crisis of a few years ago, when I first experienced a similar scenario. It was because of the excellent advice I received back then, at the height of the crisis, that we managed to turn the horror of load shedding into an opportunity for economic growth and job creation. The Western Cape now has one of the fastest growing green economies in the world, with renewable energy undercutting the cost of coal-fired energy and making new sources of nuclear power redundant. It was our expert officials and entrepreneurs who helped us snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Can we do the same with the water crisis? If it is up to our entrepreneurs, we will.

The far bigger question is: can the government create conducive conditions for this to happen?

With this thought uppermost in my mind I attended a briefing held by Minister Nomvula Mokonyane who was addressing officials and “civil society” organisations about the water crisis.

She repeated everything we already knew: The only action her department has taken to help us so far is enforcing water restrictions on some farms; granting a few new water-use licences; and proposing a small desalination plant by her preferred contractor, that the City would have to pay for.

But one sentence of her presentation – the only one for which she received spontaneous applause – was not in her script.

We must”, she said, “reduce the temptation of creating business opportunities at the expense of the unserved or the vulnerable.”

And then again on Sunday at the Press Club, she warned against “commodifying” water.

The minister’s statement goes to the heart of one of the core problem in government. This is the false belief that the private sector is the enemy of the poor; that only government is on their side and can address their problems.

Despite our experiences in the recent energy crisis (which illustrated the exact opposite), minister Mokonyane continues to insist that the water crisis be addressed by a State-owned Enterprise, Umgeni Water. That is the reason that she sought to override the City’s private sector tendering process, by an “out-of-the-blue” decision to impose Umgeni Water as the contractor for a desalination plant at the Waterfront. It was not an act of largesse. The City would still have had to pay for the plant, despite the fact that bulk water supply is a national government competency.

(The plot thickens when one recalls that, during the course of last year, the Minister appointed Dudu Myeni, President Zuma’s close friend who ran another SoE, South African Airways, into the ground, to chair the joint Mhlathuze and Umgeni Water boards following a corruption scandal. Enough said.)

The solution to our energy crisis (which was at its height when our dams were full four years ago) has illustrated how outdated and patently false the government’s approach to the private sector is.

The cost of energy is dropping thanks to new technology and competition between private power producers. The situation would be much better still if Eskom created a more facilitative environment for the private sector to operate and feed electricity into the grid. Eskom only opened the door, slightly, to private producers because Eskom could not produce sufficient electricity itself. And while claiming to be the champions of the poor, Eskom has been driving energy costs higher and higher, and its profligacy has brought the whole country to the brink of bankruptcy.

Listening to Minister Mokonyane, it was clear that the government is following the Eskom approach to solve the water shortages that are likely to be a consequence of climate change, countrywide: Starve supply, force down demand, charge people more, bring in state-owned enterprises where augmentation is needed, and let them decide when to bring in private sector partners (as Eskom did with Trillian and McKinsey etc when there is an “advantage” for those high up in the political food chain).

It is true, South Africans have always been far too profligate with water, and the time for flushing millions of litres of drinking water down toilets must come to an end, the sooner the better. It is also true that the current cost of water is artificially low, and cannot provide the financial buffer needed to maintain and extend our water infrastructure.

But unless the government complements its dams with new forms of water augmentation infrastructure, wealthier clients will “go off the grid” and develop their own water supply schemes. This will have disastrous consequences for the cost of water in the nationalised system, which has always relied on cross-subsidisation to make water free or more affordable for the poor. They will then have to pay more and more for using less and less water supplied by the government’s increasingly obsolete systems, provided by “state-owned enterprises” (with massive cuts going to “middlemen” as we saw with the Eskom debacle).

We, in the Western Cape, have a fundamentally different approach to the role of partnerships with the private sector. I often wish journalists who cover complex stories like this would take the time to understand the core issues at stake and not take the easy route of labelling differences in approach as “political bickering”. Policy approaches make the difference between success or failure, and they need to be thoroughly aired, even in a crisis.

One of the upsides of a disaster declaration is that I can now bring our approach to bear on trying to solve the problem, in the interests of consumers. The months ahead will determine whether it will be possible in the short time available. But, having tried to grasp the realities of the present situation, there really is no alternative. DM


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