Incompetence, graft key drivers of water crisis

Johannesburg, Durban and other parts of South Africa have faced water challenges. Picture: Supplied

Johannesburg, Durban and other parts of South Africa have faced water challenges. Picture: Supplied

Published Mar 16, 2024


Michael Sutcliffe and Sue Bannister

”Water bubbles up in streets, pooling in neighbourhoods for weeks or months. Homes burn to the ground if firefighters can’t draw enough water from hydrants. Utility crews struggle to fix broken pipes while water flows through shut-off valves that don’t work”.

This certainly sounds like one of our cities, but it is from an article a few weeks ago documenting that across many cities in the United States, over 60% (many trillions of litres) of the potable water is being lost through leaks and wastage, leaving communities literally dry and very frustrated. It is no longer only the poor who have no access to basic services like water and sanitation, but everyone is now affected.

The reality in South Africa is no different and has now become the new norm, where in our metropolitan areas 16% of our households have inadequate access to food, and 12% of our households had water outages of over 15 days in the past financial year. Nationally, 75 of our most financially distressed municipalities cannot afford to pay for their bulk water supply. This reality must change.

South Africa faces major challenges of water scarcity. This is due to physical limits – low average rainfall; hot climate; poor management and maintenance, and inefficient use. We already have a water deficit which is growing and will be between 2.7 and 3.8 billion cubic meters, a gap of approximately 17%, by 2030.

Of course some of this is due to the fact that we are overcoming the reality created by apartheid where black South Africans were deprived of access to water, a situation which has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. The Censuses show this clearly:

 in 1996 almost 20% of our households had no access to piped water, but by 2022 this figure had been reduced to under 9%.

 in 1996 about 60% of our households had access to piped water inside their homes or yards, and today that figure is over 80%.

At the same time, on average, our domestic consumption of water is over 60 litres per person per day higher than global benchmarks. Much of this is due to leakages and losses, but does also demonstrate the need for households with easy access to water, to make a real effort to reduce our consumption.

The lack of maintenance and renewal of infrastructure has been a major factor behind many of the water outages. Of R128 billion on capital spent by our municipalities in the 2021/22 financial year, around 30% (R57bn) has been spent on water and sanitation related infrastructure. However only 3% of this was spent on repairs and maintenance. This figure should be at least between 7-10%.

Herein lies our first serious problem: we are failing to repair and maintain what we have.

However, it is also important to recognise that maintenance and repairs may themselves cause significant disruptions of water supply.

The lack of maintenance is also compounded by managerial failures in many municipalities. In our own municipality of eThekwini, for example, the Auditor-General used examples from eThekwini to highlight fraud and corruption, poor performance targeting, lack of complete or accurate information, non-achievement of targets and poor commissioning of projects. Her report also highlighted that

 Wastewater discharges at treatment works did not comply with standards and reasonable measures were not taken to prevent pollution or degradation.

 Officials did not update disaster management plans;.

 There was a lack of coordination between custodians of infrastructure: For example Tongaat water treatment gets fixed but bulk supply lines not ready, so further delays.

There can be no excuses when a city like eThekwini, that has relatively good technical capacity (over 150 engineers, technologists and technicians), still faces these challenges. Issues include a lack of succession planning and management and the need to urgently fill posts in key areas like water and sanitation planning, asset management, water and wastewater design.

These professionals also need to be empowered to do their jobs without being frustrated through slow and sometimes corrupt processes in appointments, supply chain and procurement. At the same time, managers must manage and all must be held to account if they do not do their job properly.

Across our country hardly a day goes by without reports of corruption, incompetence, the construction mafia, unprotected strikes and poor management of the procurement processes. And when both municipal and trades union leadership are shunned by workers going on unprotected strikes, there should be no other option than to follow due processes and fire such staff who are nothing more than saboteurs.

These issues reflect poorly on leadership and management at a municipal level and must be urgently and decisively resolved, with consequent action being publicised. This includes prioritising and increasing maintenance, improving asset management, addressing the non-revenue water, improving situations where there is intermittent supply, implementing turnaround strategies, enforcing by-laws and credit control measures, taking action against unregulated services being provided, and ensuring far more transparency and responsiveness.

In this regard governmental and society leadership must work together to decisively address the multidimensional and complex root causes of our current challenges.

*Sutcliffe and Bannister are Directors at City Insight

**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL