Defend Truth


Water and sanitation mismanagement in eThekwini is a growing human rights crisis


Councillor Yogis Govender is a member of the eThekwini Municipality Executive Committee.

The situation relating to the management and delivery of water and sanitation in eThekwini is a growing human rights crisis. The quality of life of hundreds of thousands of residents has become severely impaired and the situation is only getting worse.

Despite longstanding water issues in the far north and far south of eThekwini, the city is currently in crisis mode on all fronts. The constant issues with sewage on beaches and in waterways have also had a serious impact on the municipality’s tourism and ecology. 

In the light of meetings between the city’s leadership and the National Department of Water and Sanitation, scheduled for later this week, there is an urgent need to speak frankly about what is happening in eThekwini.

Access to water has been so severely compromised in eThekwini that eThekwini consistently loses more than half of the billable water that it purchases from Umgeni Water. The latest statistic was a startling 54% of water lost to bursts and theft monthly. This sat at between 30% and 40% for the past 10 years, but is now out of control. This also has a significant impact on our finances and income. 

The city’s woes have been exacerbated by technical and infrastructure failures emerging from Umgeni Water from whom the city purchases its bulk water. This has seen water services take a nosedive in recent months and left more communities stricken with rolling outages. 

Emerging information suggests a worrying trend of theft of infrastructure, vandalism and labour force failures. Given that the city’s infrastructure is aged and bursting at the seams, the real worry is that the city has no clear short-term solution, nor the budget for it. The human rights indictment on the city officials and the ANC-led municipality is dire.

The sewage crisis has reached unprecedented proportions — 110 pump stations don’t have a second pump, so they overflow if the first one fails, and don’t have generators if the electricity on which they are dependent fails. 

The sewer pump stations have also seen an uptick in what the city labels as “vandalism”. Repeated vandalism targeting critical infrastructure surely suggests that there might be something more sinister at play. 

These three issues are the cornerstone of the sewage problems in the rivers and on the beaches — pumps fail and the stations discharge into stormwater and thus watercourses and eventually, the sea.

Water tankers have become a mainstay of how eThekwini operates. Communities wait for tankers and queue with buckets while councillors frantically try to ensure that they can get their hands on a tanker to serve their ward. There are seldom enough available. 

Electricity and water outages cost the city and businesses millions per annum, most of which is irrecoverable. The responses of the city’s leadership to problems indicate a serious lack of political will, experience and funds to fix eThekwini. 

Recently, the dubious reopening of beaches at Durban’s beachfront caused consternation among activists and environmentalists from Umbilo to Umdloti. NGOs such as “Adopt a River” have been monitoring the water quality and the latest damning report by the consultancy Talbot blew the lid on the real state of the eThekwini Municipality’s sewer crisis. It was blatant that the independent report was in serious conflict with the city’s posturing that all was well. The tourism sector and environmental sector have viewed the city’s lack of transparency in a very dim light as it is indicative of a leadership that doesn’t have answers or solutions. 

The patterns in municipal budgeting, especially when it is adjusted, show lavish spending and poor budgeting for essential issues. The city is enabling millionaires while slashing budgets by up to 40% for trading services like water, electricity and refuse collection.

The DA has tabled recommendations at multiple standing meetings that we have had with eThekwini Water and Sanitation. We have suggested a three-pronged response to the mayhem experienced in service delivery. 

The first is to allocate emergency funding, via urgent budget reprioritisation. It is critical to start now and do what we can with what we have. 

The second is to immediately amplify resources and police the management thereof by filling vacancies, restoring the city fleet, auditing job cards, work standards, checking rampant overtime, improving security measures for critical infrastructure, fixing the call centre and actually implementing serious consequence management across the board. This would have a massive impact. 

The third cog would be the public participation, adequate reporting mechanisms, whistle-blower protection, visible policing, engagement and partnerships with NGOs and civil security formations and structures that are so sorely needed. 

The edge of the cliff is far too close. The R300-million or R400-million that has been given to eThekwini’s water and sanitation department is grossly inadequate to fix what has gone wrong. It is also time for the National Department of Water and Sanitation to intervene and urgently start assisting eThekwini with its problems. The future of this city is dependent on it. DM


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