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Photo 116472603 © Ian Scammell |

By Tshegofatso Mathe

[Commissioned by PARI, first published in the Daily Maverick]

The results of years of mismanagement and corruption in the water sector are beginning to show — and it is time to act to avoid another countdown to Day Zero.

South Africa has a water problem. Being on Africa’s southern tip, the region is considered water scarce — rated the 30th driest country in the world.

However, the country’s current hydrology predicament is not all due to geography; it has been compounded by poor management, corruption, a sound Constitution that is not enforced, the lack of accountability and oversight, underinvestment in infrastructure maintenance, and delays in renewing old infrastructure.

In addition, the exacerbating effect of climate change raises much concern on how the country can protect and keep its dams full.

Provinces like the Western Cape and Eastern Cape revealed that Day Zero, which is when water will stop flowing from taps, could be imminent — and most provinces will be caught with their pants down if serious steps are not taken to conscientise people on the state of water in the region.

According to the National Water and Sanitation Master Plan Volume 1, released in 2018, over three million people in South Africa do not have access to a basic water supply service and 14.1 million do not have access to safe sanitation.

To make matters worse, 28 years after democracy, only 64% of households have access to a reliable water supply, and 56% of  wastewater treatment works and 44% of water treatment works are in poor or critical condition, while 11% are dysfunctional.

When the country ushered in its democratic dispensation, work was undertaken that was intended to ensure that all members of society have access to basic water supply and sanitation services as stipulated by the Water Services Act.

Between 1994 and 2004, 13.4 million people were provided with a basic water supply, including over 10 million served by the rural-focused programmes of the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry. However, inequality in access to water is still rampant, with some people living in urban areas doubtful that the water that is coming out of their taps is safe to consume.

The architecture of SA’s water distribution

South Africa’s Constitution says water is basically a national function and a municipal function, meaning there is no role of provinces in water and sanitation. The two work to catch, store, transport, purify and make sure that the water reaches the people that need it.

In terms of the Water Services Act, the national government has put in place water boards such as Rand Water as a support mechanism to municipalities. They are there to assist municipalities where there are economies of scale in terms of sharing bulk infrastructure; and the costs and investments in municipal infrastructure.

These water boards fall under the national department but they don’t perform a governmental function. This seems like a legitimate set-up that should work, but that is not the case.

Within this water value chain, there is a division between water services authorities and water services providers. A water services authority may either provide water services itself or contract a water services provider to do so. Then, the water services authority must manage and account separately for functions of delivering water services.

The legislation says that municipalities have to appoint water service providers. However, post-1994, almost every single municipality in the country has appointed itself as the water service provider and is the only water service provider in the municipalities. This means that the municipalities perform both as provider and overseer.

The resulting lack of checks and balances is no surprise as authorities are supposed to play a monitoring role over the water services providers and to ensure that they meet minimum standards. They are further supposed to withdraw approval if a water service provider is not meeting the minimum standards.

However, there has been widespread failure of water services authorities around the country to provide that oversight role.

To put it bluntly, municipal performance has been weak, which has compromised the delivery of water services which are not being effectively expanded to households.

In a presentation that Minister of Water and Sanitation Senzo Mchunu did in Parliament last year in March, he said that in some cases, the relationships between water boards and municipalities is poor and not conducive to optimal outcomes for service delivery.

He further explained that the financial viability of some water boards is marginal, and this is caused by an underlying structural issue: geography and client base. Other underlying causes include weak billing and revenue collection at municipal level, which results in financial challenges throughout the water value chain.

Big plans in motion but problems still linger

The writing is on the wall that something has to be done to solve this problem. The government is working on the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, phase two, which is aimed at ensuring long-term water supply in Gauteng and the Vaal River System.

In the Eastern Cape, the government is working on the Mzimvubu Water Project which will provide water to 750,000 people in that region. The designs are 80% complete. There are also several other projects in place in different provinces.

But beyond these projects, the government needs to acknowledge and learn from its past mistakes so that things can be done differently.

For example, in the City of Johannesburg’s integrated annual report for the year 2021/2022, non-revenue water — which refers to the portion of water lost due to leaks or non-billing — bottom-lined a loss of R3 billion in June 2022, which had increased from R2.4-billion in the previous  year.

The report also revealed that the level of unbilled, unmetered consumption for the year was R859.2-million — down from R868.3 million. This shows underlying issues with infrastructure and municipalities’ funding model, as these problems exist across most local governments.

Being unable to sufficiently recoup money for services rendered adds to the problems of revenue — and when revenue is weak, so is the water sector’s ability to sufficiently carry out its mandates.

Water provision needs to be run sustainably, where sufficient revenue nourishes a healthy value chain. This will only be able to happen if the local government’s financial challenges are fixed. And importantly, the water scarcity problem will only be solved if we simultaneously supplement the water resources we need and keep focusing on water conservation and demand management.

Municipalities need to ensure plans are carried out despite political influences. This level of capability will only come with professionalisation in the state.

Gone are the days when communities should rely on a “new mayor” to turn their fortunes around. Government needs insulated administrations and employees whose skill sets serve the requirements of their roles. Technically skilled people like engineers need to be ushered into the sector.

In addition, we need to rationalise legislation and clarify the sector’s institutional architecture to ensure clear roles and functional accountability.

Tshegofatso Mathe is a freelance journalist, commissioned by the Public Affairs Research Institute to respond to a panel discussion.