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Time to give a dam: State must open the taps on water infrastructure projects to unlock jobs

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Andricus van der Westhuizen is the DA’s Western Cape Committee Spokesperson on Agriculture and Environmental Affairs.

A failure to implement major dam infrastructure upgrades in the Western Cape is blocking job opportunities in the agricultural sector and may threaten livelihoods in the future. In the face of known threats from the climate crisis and global heating, and as we confront the economic challenges of the pandemic, the government’s inaction is inexplicable.

In 2018, a multi-organisational international study investigated the drivers of the “once-in-a-century” drought in the Western Cape. The study also sought to answer the following: what was the likelihood of climate change affecting the drought and would global heating increase the frequency of potential future phenomena? Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the results confirmed some of our greatest fears. It was concluded that the possibility of recurrence was at a factor of three – meaning the Western Cape is now three times more likely to experience another significant drought.

It is essential that urgent action is taken to prepare for, mitigate, and prevent residents having to relive such an ordeal – or a worse one. This is particularly significant for our province, given that 33% of South Africa’s strategic water resources are in the Western Cape. Adding to the urgency, current climate change projections suggest a 30% reduction in annual rainfall by 2050. The longer we wait for this issue to be resolved, the higher the chances that we not only jeopardise the water supply in the province, but across the country, too.

It is important to determine the roles that must be played by each sphere of government if we are to meaningfully tackle the crisis. This is vital due to the misconception that local governments are responsible for all water matters. While it is true that municipalities are mandated to ensure water and sanitation services are provided in their respective regions, the onus of bulk water supply (dams and other large water bodies) falls on the national government. As such, the national Department of Water and Sanitation is in control of rolling out construction programmes for this purpose.

But as things stand, gross ineptitude by the department has resulted in the delay of key water infrastructure projects. The failure to carry out such projects halts any improvements in local employment. But more than this, particularly at this time, in the face of a pandemic with devastating economic consequences, infrastructure projects are key to reviving livelihoods and growing job opportunities. In the Western Cape, two major projects have been delayed.

The first is the raising of the Clanwilliam Dam wall. The dam was built in 1935, and the wall is in dire need of construction work. Every year, water is wasted due to overflows, which should be stored for agricultural use. Current plans to strengthen and increase the dam wall height by 13m would increase the volume of water by 2.4 times.

As far back as 2014, National Treasury set aside R2-billion for this project, with construction expected to start shortly after this allocation. To safeguard the road from flooding by the raised wall, the South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral) built a completely new section of the N7 to run past the dam. However, serious delays came when the indifference of a previous minister responsible for water affairs meant that the contract for construction work to begin was not signed off.

A whole four years later, a different minister relaunched the project with great fanfare. It was reported at the time that more than R100-million had already been spent on the project, even though not a single brick had been laid. Fast-forward to 2021: the situation has not changed, except for the significant additional costs which have accrued since then.

The opportunity cost of the government’s stagnation on this project translates directly into jobs. The additional water from a new Clanwilliam Dam will allow for the irrigation of 5,500 additional hectares. In real terms, this means 3,500 sustainable, full-time jobs could be created, supporting local livelihoods in the face of incredibly harsh economic conditions. This excludes seasonal jobs and additional jobs downstream in the value chain.

The reason for these delays is the failure to allocate major construction work to subcontractors, which include, but are not limited to, blasting work and the supply of aggregate. A forensic investigation found a series of irregularities had taken place during the bid processes, meaning, again, even more delays and additional costs incurred.

The second example is at the Brandvlei Dam, near Worcester. After completion in 1983, the irrigation capacity it provided contributed significantly to job creation, food production and exports. Right now, there are plans to increase the seasonal flow of water into the dam by raising the banks of its major feeder canal, the Holsloot.

The designs have been finalised. The necessary approvals have been obtained. The money has been procured and set aside. And the contract has been allocated to the department’s southern construction unit.

But this all took place more than two years ago and no construction work has been done. Once more, we are told that the engineers are still waiting for major tenders to be allocated. In the meantime, thousands of potential new jobs have been put on the backburner.

Given global climate change and the evidence from research, the supply of constant water is essential to the growth of our agriculture industry. Our long, dry summers mean that farmers are completely reliant on irrigation during those periods. The province also has a large stake in the export of fruit. Orchards are both labour and resource intensive to successfully grow, such that they only recover their establishment costs after 10 years. Due to the drought in the Klein Karoo, we have seen a number of orchards become unproductive and farms go bankrupt. This has led to unemployment and severe hardship for those affected.

Our province supports more than 420,000 primary and secondary jobs in agriculture. Despite the prevailing economic and Covid-19 conditions, this industry has shown much resilience and growth potential. Science tells us that we cannot wait for the next drought to threaten our quality of life and livelihoods. It is time that the national government opens the taps on these projects, so that we can unlock the jobs we so desperately need. DM

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  • Why has the province not done the one thing it can by clearing the supply catchments of invading plants? This is committing the region to roughly 10% less water yield, regardless of climate change or dam capacity. Big dams don’t help in drought, and push risky investment into orchards that will be lost within 10 – 20 years to the next one.

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