South Africa is a water-scarce country. In addition, its water infrastructure is inadequate and constrained. The impact of this is felt by all our citizens – from rural communities who walk kilometres to find fresh water, to urban dwellers facing the frightening prospect of their taps running dry.
It is important to first understand why the availability of water in South Africa is constrained. This is a natural climatic feature of our country and the southern African subcontinent. There is nothing we can do to change our geographic location. We can, however, worsen its effects.
Scientific evidence on climate change shows we are doing just that, and there is growing urgency for us and the rest of the world to change course and take real steps to first mitigate and ultimately reverse the effects of our behaviour on the planet.
One need only look at our subcontinent’s historical and even prehistoric settlement patterns to understand the critical role that water plays in the development of civilisations – ancient and modern.
By far the biggest chunk of unoccupied land available in southern Africa is on the western part of the subcontinent, including the perennially dry Namibia, and the western parts of the Western Cape and Northern Cape. Despite the abundance of empty land, this region has lagged behind the eastern parts when it comes to settlement.
To this day, the bulk of South Africa’s population is concentrated along the eastern coast and the more arable areas in the eastern interior, as well as the central plateau centred on mineral-rich Gauteng.
All of this is the result of low rainfall, the absence of significant river systems, and the resulting absence of water and tillable land in these areas. As previously stated, there is not much we can do about this unfortunate national heritage, other than careful management and mitigation.
But overuse of what little water is available as well as global warming and desertification resulting from our own activities have made the situation worse and accelerated the depletion of our water resources.
The severe water shortages we witnessed in the Western Cape in 2018, when Day Zero seemed inevitable, was proof of this. The actions of citizens and the local, provincial and national government to avert disaster worked, but this was not a permanent solution.
We should make no mistake about the severity of what we still face: running out of water in that province will imperil the lives and livelihoods of more than 7 million citizens and endanger the economy of our second-largest city.
Most worryingly, the water shortages we saw in the Western Cape are now seen in some parts of the Eastern Cape. But in that province, water shortages are driven both by drought and something more preventable: the neglect, mismanagement and resulting collapse of nearly the entire chain of water infrastructure serving the province’s main population centres, especially in Gqeberha.
Every part of the system, from rainfall capture to dam maintenance, distribution, reticulation, sanitation and reuse, is failing. This has left residents either without water completely or exposed to contaminated water.
In Makhanda, a large provincial population centre that hosts thousands of young people in its educational institutions, the water provided by the municipality is simply no longer considered safe enough for human consumption.
This situation reverses one of the crowning achievements of our democratic breakthrough in 1994: the extension of potable municipal water to the majority of South Africans by piping up our townships and rural areas, something the ANC saw as one of its historical missions upon assuming power.
By itself that is bad enough and is a source of shame to the movement, but it is dwarfed by another more immediate outcome of this infrastructure collapse.
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The failure of established government systems always opens the space for private actors to provide government services for profit. These private actors may be legitimate companies that operate within the law, but exploit state failure and citizen desperation for private gain, or worse still, they may be criminal groups holding those citizens to ransom and even sabotaging government service delivery to protect their illegitimate revenue streams.
Sadly, we have clearly reached this nadir in South Africa’s bulk infrastructure systems, including water. Addressing the standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) earlier this month, Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu admitted that this is due to municipal service delivery collapse.
“We now know that half of the municipalities around the country are underperforming or not performing at all when it comes to water and sanitation,” he told the meeting.
This reality has already put too many of our citizens at the mercy of so-called water tanker syndicates. These syndicates – essentially people who invest in acquiring water tankers and bid for tenders to supply water to communities affected by water shortages – have a vested interest in the failure of municipal water service delivery. There is evidence that many of them engage in active sabotage of municipal water systems so that they may be hired and paid handsomely to provide water to desperate communities.
“In some cases, water tankering has become an official corruption field; a kind of a syndicate legitimised in some cases by mayors themselves, or some people in excos and municipalities,” Minister Mchunu said.
We cannot sugarcoat the base cause: state failure exerts a massive cost on South Africans by leaving them vulnerable to the nefarious actions of extortionists. Worst of all, this is happening in a country where we have not completed the mission of extending basic services to everyone.
Even now, 28 years after the democratic breakthrough, too many rural communities are without clean water; too many of our people rely on untreated and often polluted rivers for their everyday water needs; too many share their local water sources with animals or have their water contaminated by sewage because municipal water treatment systems have failed.
This is a dire situation – one that cannot continue and needs to be arrested immediately. So, what is to be done?
The first step is to invest urgently in restoring the health of our water infrastructure. This includes everything from capacitating municipalities with the skills needed for maintenance of existing infrastructure, to building and retaining new infrastructure. Our government already has a well-funded infrastructure restoration and build plan, and we must protect this against any erosion resulting from fiscal pressures.
We must also do more to crack down on syndicates and reverse the trend of criminality that is destroying our national infrastructure. Some of our worst affected SOEs have come together to confront the problem. Telkom, Eskom, Transnet and Prasa have been working with the police and have formed a joint initiative to combat what they term “economic sabotage of critical infrastructure” (Esci).
Their anti-Esci initiative is focused on power, rail and telecoms, as well as transport and logistics infrastructure, which is where these companies operate. But there is no reason not to extend the focus to include social services infrastructure such as water, sanitation etc.
Should we not consider the creation of a dedicated anti-Esci security agency whose remit is to investigate, prosecute and monitor infrastructure-related organised crime? Given the importance of our economic and social service infrastructure to turning around our economy, this investment in its protection should be a priority.
We should also do more to rebuild state capacity dedicated to the maintenance of our bulk infrastructure. The truth is that since 1994, we have allowed ourselves to lose too many of the skills and know-how necessary to maintain water, electricity, road transport and other critical systems, without thought and consideration for how the depletion of these skills will affect the basic functions of government and the welfare of our citizens.
On water specifically, we must redouble our efforts in local and regional projects to increase the supply of water to our major population areas. For instance, we must move urgently to complete all phases of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, given its singular importance to the water security of our economic heartland in Gauteng and the desperate southern parts of the Eastern Cape.
In addition, more effort must be expended towards exploring and exploiting additional water sources. This should include but not be limited to cloud seeding to increase rainfall and exploring underground aquifers, as well as using technologies such as desalination and modern water treatment systems that allow us to re-use water more efficiently.
We must arrest water wastage, and encourage more efficient use of water from both domestic and industrial users of our most precious resource.
Last, but by no means least, we must be more determined and consistent in mitigating and reversing the effects of our own ruinous actions. We must be more mindful of the climate change effects of our individual, social and industrial activities.
Water is an increasingly scarce resource – not just here, but across the globe. That is simply because this planet’s water, while seemingly abundant, is finite. Securing our water future is not just a local developmental imperative. It is an existential and security necessity in the 21st century.
As we move forward, it has become clear that modern statecraft will focus on guaranteeing water security, in the way that security defined statecraft in the 20th century. Many of the planet’s major water systems have moved to the centre of regional and global conflict.
One need only look at the contestation over the Amazon and its increasing importance to the domestic politics of Brazil; the bubbling conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt over the construction of the Great Renaissance Dam on the southern Nile; India’s struggles over the sustainability of the Ganges; and countless other water-based national, regional and global conflicts to recognise the enormity of the challenges we face.
No state that is unable to maintain water security in the 21st and subsequent centuries will survive for long. This will be even starker for naturally water-challenged states such as South Africa.
The test of the century is simple: protect your water resources or die a slow, dry death. DM
Paul Mashatile is in contention for a top leadership position at the ANC’s upcoming national elective conference from 16 December 2022.