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Underspending on water security sends economic growth ideals down the drain


Xolisa Phillip has had quite an adventure as a journalist in the roles of subeditor, news editor, columnist and commentator. She pretends to be Olivia Pope during the day, while still maintaining a presence in journalism – a passion project she cannot shake away. Journalism keeps finding Phillip no matter where she is and somewhat manages to hold its own space no matter where she is professionally.

Beyond growth graphs, economic modelling and the yield curve lie basic measures of a functional society, which include access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation. But the latter remains a pipe dream for South Africans reliant on the bucket system.

In Water, Growth and Finance, a 2015 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), it notes that investing in “enhancing water security protects society and sectors from specific water risks, and can have a profound positive effect on economic growth, inclusiveness and the structure of economies”.

The Department of Water and Sanitation is, arguably, one of the most important portfolios in government. When there are power cuts, South Africans are mostly able to make alternative arrangements by using gas stoves, paraffin heaters and lamps, candles and, for the well-heeled, solar inverters.

But water scarcity, insecurity and unavailability present insoluble problems for all communities and both society and all sectors are affected.

Although “inclusive growth” has been an SA Inc mantra for longer than a decade, the experiences of some marginalised communities show that the government has largely failed to translate the slogan into implementation, notable change or improvements.

Curiously, the concept of inclusive growth does not necessarily denote pro-poor growth or policies. The former is an almost all-encompassing and expanded lens through which to assess societal progress.

Pakistani economist Syed Nawab Haider Naqvi summarises inclusive growth as a policy that “deliberately seeks to achieve concurrently a dynamic relationship between the growth of per capita income, the distribution of income and the level of poverty in a growing society”.

Naqvi traces the term inclusive growth back to the 1950s, which spawned development economics and development theory.

But, as recently as the end of May, the director-general at Water and Sanitation informed legislators that the department had underspent its budget by R2.5-billion – R1.6-billion of which was intended for programmes that included the eradication of bucket toilets and drought intervention.  

Reasons for the underspending, the department said, include “slow-moving projects, contractual disputes, [a] due diligence review process for [the] transfer of contracts, protests and community unrest”.

The portfolio committee on water and sanitation said it was “extremely concerned” about this latest development.

In its 2015 report, the OECD warned that “water-related risks increasingly affect stability and economic growth, public finances, poor and vulnerable social groups, and the environment, thus demanding urgent and concerted action”.

It further cautioned that economic losses could result from inadequate water supply and sanitation, and associated loss of life, health costs, lost time and other opportunity costs. The losses are highest in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sovereign credit reviews of South Africa in April and May by ratings agencies Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings highlight the country’s high exposure to social risk and point to its “pervasive social and governance issues”.

The protests and community unrest cited by the Department of Water and Sanitation for its underspending on key programmes correlate with its institutional and administrative challenges. These are well-documented, historical problems that continue to plague it under the present administration – three years in and counting.

The pace of the department’s recovery and its work towards regularising its institutional arrangements is being overtaken by the increasing need for its basic services in marginalised communities.

Passing the bucket

In communities where sanitation needs remain unmet, life did not stand still during the department’s decade of decline, when administrative abnormalities were the norm and its mandate was subverted.

Matters are not helped by South Africa’s convoluted institutional arrangements, which make it possible to “pass the buck” and not be held accountable.

Water and sanitation problems link back to Moody’s and S&P’s observations about SA’s high – and rising – social risk premium, with the added complication of governance.

In its defence, the department states that it has project management systems in place and has provided support to implementing agents. The department has also hired 854 engineers and scientists.

On the sector side, the water and sanitation department says it has a plan to make the issuing of water-use licences more efficient and Cabinet recently approved the Mine Water Management Policy of 2022.

In 2022, and most probably for the rest of the current administration’s term in office, residents in metros and municipalities across SA will remain subjected to the indignity of the bucket system. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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  • It remains a controversial and probably spurned idea that most of the water from our large dams should be retained for industry and agriculture; to create employment and provide food.

    For the rest of us we should be looking for other sources of water for our homes, swimming pools and gardens. Let the price rise, it’s the only factor that will force us to start harvesting and storing large amounts of rainwater that fall on our roofs; water that largely is lost. For them Day Zero will never arrive.

    That unspent R2.5 billion would have built 250,000 underground reservoirs; providing work for 12,000 teams of builders of 8 persons, using mainly locally sourced materials; a well-type bucket and rope would raise the water.

    Lateral thinking alas is not one of the strong points of the Dept of Water and Sanitation.

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