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From the Inside: If only each sphere of government took its responsibilities seriously

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

In an extraordinary week for South Africa, the one thing that didn’t happen was the only one that was confidently predicted. This was the formal declaration, as a “national disaster”, of the drought gripping the ?Western, Northern and Eastern Cape.

The declaration has been reported as though it is a done deal. Not so. President Cyril Ramaphosa worded it very carefully in his State of the Nation speech on Friday night:

The drought situation in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape,” he said, “has been elevated to a national state of disaster.”

The word “elevated” does not exist in the relevant Act (and as I have explained before, everything one does in government is precisely determined by the actual letter of the law).

There are two words that matter in the Act. One is “classify”. The other is “declare”. They mean very different things, confer differing powers on different spheres of government, and are executed at different stages by different authorities during an extended process.

The first box was ticked when, in my capacity as premier, I requested the president to initiate the process of declaring the drought a national disaster.

The president concurred and sent the request to the National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC) for a disaster classification. Tick.

The NDMC sent the classification to the National Minister of Co-operative Government and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) with a request for a disaster declaration. Half tick.

This request is, I understand, on the minister’s desk, but at the time of writing he had not yet finalised the declaration. He is reportedly reluctant to do so because the department does not have resources to deal with the consequences. The fiscus has run out of money.

What’s more, before Minister Des van Rooyen finally gets around to deciding, he may no longer be the COGTA minister. The same applies to the other national minister involved with the matter, Water and Sanitation’s Nomvula Mokonyane.

Both were, and remain, outspoken Zuma allies. And although President Ramaphosa is likely to retain some of Zuma’s inner circle in his Cabinet to maintain a semblance of ANC unity, Des and Nomvula are unlikely to make the cut.

So, after all the effort to get national government to do the necessary, we may well find ourselves back at square one this week. (I have written before about the profound impact every national Cabinet reshuffle has on the functioning of provinces.)

But, all things considered, the next Cabinet reshuffle will probably help more than hinder us in dealing with the situation. With a bit of luck, the new ministers won’t keep contradicting our “Day Zero” messaging, which has helped, at last, to achieve the necessary water-saving targets to avoid Day Zero (the date we have to start queueing for water rations).

The only support we have had from national government till now (and for which we are profoundly grateful) has been deep drilling equipment, water inspectors to prevent illegal extraction from rivers, the issuing of some water-use licences, and a contribution to disaster relief of R75-million.

There has been nothing for water augmentation, which is clearly a national government mandate. At scale, augmentation costs billions. The City of Cape Town has had to make a plan to carry that can. It involves ramping up augmentation from about 120 million litres per day by July (primarily from aquifer extraction) to about 300 million litres per day (including desalination and re-use) by September 2020. As a result, and unavoidably, we are still going to have to use water sparingly for a long time, and water is going to cost more.

The province will exercise oversight on this process. We will also insist that the national government fulfils its functions, and we will highlight problems that arise, even though the media will undoubtedly accuse us of “squabbling”.

Sometimes I think we haven’t squabbled enough. Oversight requires us to expose things that go wrong. Looking back, we haven’t made enough public noise about some of the things that have gone spectacularly wrong, contributing significantly to the province’s current crisis.

The Clanwilliam Dam Project is one example.

This project, which involves the raising of the dam wall by 13.5-metres, has been on the national department’s books as an essential water augmentation project for about a decade.

In 2013/14, the R2-billion required for the project was actually on the national budget. It was all systems go, with the completion date scheduled for mid-2018. This would have doubled the dam’s holding capacity to 340 million cubic metres, enabling the irrigation of about 6,000 additional hectares of farmland, especially for emerging farmers in an area whose economy is 80% dependent on agriculture.

The more water there is, the more jobs there are for communities from Clanwilliam to Vredendal.

There was a lot of excitement in the area when the department’s internal construction unit – Construction South – commenced site establishment in Clanwilliam in June 2014.

Then the project stalled. For some unexplained reason, the department decided to go out on tender instead of using its in-house construction capacity. Speculation was rife, at the height of the Zupta vice-grip on power, that a politically connected consortium had the project in its sights.

Two years later, it had still not been awarded. But Minister Mokonyane gave an undertaking in Parliament, on 25 October 2017, that the project would go ahead, and that a contractor would be appointed within two months.

This did not happen and the tender lapsed.

When we raised this at our meeting with the minister on 7 February she finally informed us there was no money for the Clanwilliam Dam wall project. The money that was originally on the budget had been moved somewhere else.

All the while, for almost four years, 53 departmental staff members have been twiddling their thumbs in Clanwilliam, waiting for construction to start. The cost for their stay – for the month of February 2017 alone – according to a reply to a parliamentary question, was R2.5-million.

This means that over four years, more than R100-million was being wasted, while the regional economy declined due to a shortage of water.

The drought has placed 20% of farmers under threat of going out of business. The Tiger Brands factory in the area has closed, as farmers do not have money for cash crops like tomatoes and there is nothing to process.

Much of this economic damage could have been averted if the dam wall raising project that was promised had materialised.

The scandal of the Clanwilliam dam wall project is unfortunately not an isolated case. Indeed, for every high-risk municipality in the Western Cape, there is a failed, delayed or abandoned DWS water supply project.

Like the desalination plant at Lambert’s Bay in the Cederberg Municipality, which was completed in 2013 except for “final details”. It has been standing idle ever since because there was no money for the brine discharge pipeline (which pumps the concentrated salt back into the sea) and telemetry (equipment for remote data analysis). Altogether these would have cost R28-million, which the municipality did not have, and which the national department would not provide to complete the project. Back then, the province could not do so either without incurring fruitless and wasteful expenditure, because this is not a provincial mandate. However, given the provincial disaster declaration, we are now able to do so, and are moving ahead in the current budget cycle, in order to finish this plant as a matter of urgency, because we desperately need the 5-million litres of fresh, clean water it will provide every day when it is finished.

When one thinks about the relatively small amount of money that the national department would have required, back in 2013, to finish this project (in comparison with the R2.5-billion over-run on the Giyani augmentation scheme in Limpopo and the other major irregularities identified in the latest Auditor General’s report), it is enough to make one weep. Just a quarter of the money wasted on the Clanwilliam project would have been enough to finish the Lambert’s bay desalinator!

Our situation would certainly have looked very different if each sphere of government had taken its responsibilities seriously, and executed them meticulously, from the start.

But at least the declaration of a provincial disaster has given us more power to get a grip on this crisis, which we are doing, slowly but surely.

It would, however, be a mistake to think that we will be out of the woods even if we manage to avoid Day Zero this year, especially if this winter brings another round of low rainfall. Then we will have to face the summer of 2018/19 in an even worse position. Although some of our augmentation schemes will be in place by then, we will have to continue to save water in order to get through.

We cannot survive without rain, even when our augmentation schemes are working at full capacity. Water-saving is with us to stay.

That is a positive development. As the number of human beings on this planet increases, profligate lifestyles must be a thing of the past, or we will decimate our natural resources.

Profligate governments are equally dangerous. The Clanwilliam dam debacle and Lambert’s Bay desalinator give us a glimpse into what corruption has cost ordinary South Africans. There are thousands of other examples, in every aspect of governance across the country.

In a democracy, voters have the power to prevent this ever happening again. We can only blame ourselves if we don’t. DM


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