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Without water, we die – we must reverse the effects of our ruinous actions


Paul Mashatile is the Treasurer-General of the ANC. He writes in his personal capacity.

South Africa faces an existential crisis because of its natural and human-made water shortages. For the country to survive, we need to find lasting solutions to our water scarcity.

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.


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  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    Stopped reading when you wanted to lay blame at the feet of the private sector for the state our water infrastructure is in. It was the ANC, their corruption, the 10% added to any tender due to BEE and substandard delivery by cadres that brought us here, all thanks to the ANC. That you after all this time cannot accept the absolute catastrophe the ANC has inflicted upon this country is extremely sad and really dampens my hope that we can expect anything positive from the ANC in the future. Please (although it should be required reading for you) Google “corruption watch water” and read the pdf “Money down the drain”.

    • sue fry says:

      ‘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 …….’ this is the only reference i found to the private sector and i don’t see how it is blaming tohe private sector for the problem. I found the article quite thoughtful and admitting the ANC has not performed very well. What about this line? ‘we must be more determined and consistent in mitigating and reversing the effects of our own ruinous actions.’ ?

      • Karl Sittlinger says:

        As I said, I stopped reading at that point. Even now after finishing the article the overall tone is one of trying to soften government fault and blaming other parties for the state our water infrastructure is in, when it is clearly due to years of ANC neglect and theft.

    • Roelf Pretorius says:

      I don’t think you understand what he is saying. It is not the concept of private enterprise that is the problem, but the law enforcement that is absent. As a result entrepreneurs then are able to tie up with corrupt politicians and municipal officials to not build/maintain/prioritise water infrastructure as it should be, so these entrepreneurs can make money.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Start off with Education and Birth control and then maybe we have a chance…. A concerted effort in cleaning up our rivers…the life blood of any country, would also be a great way to start! South Africa still has a chance to do the right thing to secure water security but unfortunately ignorance and over population are fast destroying the chances of sustainability.

  • One critical point that is missing in this article is the need to protect the natural infrastructure that is the source of fresh water in this country – those strategic water source areas that comprise 10% of the land area but provide 50% of the runoff into our rivers. Think Drakensberg, grasslands, wetlands etc. that are water-producing landscapes. Securing the biological integrity of our water source areas should be prioritised over some more questionable and expensive technologies like cloud seeding or even desalination.

  • Allan Wolman Wolman says:

    Paull Mashatile’s so correctly describes many of the failings of his government regarding water security. The ANC’s continued policy of burying their heads in the ground instead of looking at the world’s most successful water management initiative, in the middle of the most arid region where that country recycles almost 90% of its waste water, developed state of the art and inexpensive desalinization technology, exporting clean potable water to neighbouring countries and has offered this technology to South Africa but to deal with Israel the ANC would rather their people go thirsty than have to source knowhow from Israel.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    Whilst I respect Paul Mashatile, and hope that he wins the elections in December so that the ANC would have Deputy Prsident that is both economically literate and has an understanding of business. However, he needs to be honest that this country does not have a water problem but an ANC problem. In a few days we will be watching the greatest spectactle from a desert country and all of them are not moaning about water because they have recognised the desert character of their countries and acted through water desalination technology and includes Israel that leads in this technology and water reticulation technology to the extent that India is working with them on this. If the ANC has woken up now that South Africa is a semi – arid country God must help us all because donkeys have been running the country and no wonder we have an electricity emergency. Paul knows that maintanace is a word that has not existed in the ANC diction and its results are a crumbling electricity, water, road and rail infrastructure. The President who was at Ugu talking a lot of rubbish about the history of Apartheid instead of responding to the issues of water and road infrastructure that has completely collapsed in that district with dysfunctional water infrastructure. The sad part are ANC people who have water tanks who prey on the situation and even sabotage it for tenders. The fellow who is called Senzo Mchunu has no clue that water desalination has to be part of water policy in this country.

  • Paul – its your very own whatsapp group that have put us in this position. Take responsibility for the indifference and incompetence displayed – except of course when it came to looting – here you lot are world champions!

  • Gerrie Brink says:

    Addressing the water and sanitation issues needs to start with the basics and should involve EVERY citizen of South Africa. The basics being awareness training. We don’t know what we don’t know. Have a look at #surpluswater2025 as a good starting point…

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    Mr. Mashatile is clearly not in touch with what is going on in the old homeland areas in Mpumalanga, because he does not mention that. My information is that, 28 years into the new SA, water infrastructure has still not been completed to provide clean water to the houses of the people living there, not even in the townships that I visited. And residents then have to buy water from private providers in the way that he describes. I don’t know what the situation in the old homeland areas in Limpopo, KZN, Free State, North West and the Eastern Cape is, but it is a problem in all the old homeland areas in Mpumalanga that I visited, and I visited most of them.

  • Alan Young says:

    We are holidaying in the Lowveld this year. It will be hot but a great deal less crowded! We will be on a private nature reserve in and hoping for rain to cool us off!

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