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How to keep SA's head above water

Lloyd Gedye

Skills shortages are hampering the government's multibillion-rand infrastructure roll-out plan, writes Lloyd Gedye

The government announced details of its R69-billion spending on water infrastructure in the recent national budget, but will it get bang for its buck?

Analysts said that unless the problem areas—such as human capital, water recycling and government oversight—were solved, South Africans would not be getting value for their money from the massive water infrastructure drive.

For years South Africa has underspent on water infrastructure and now comes the time to play catch up. This is made clear when one considers that spending by the department of water affairs has increased from R5.1-billion in 2008-2009 to R9-billion in 2011-2012, an annual year-on-year increase of 20.6%. Spending on water sector management has increased by 28.8% year on year over the same period and spending on water infrastructure management has risen by 13.2% year on year.

The total planned expenditure on water infrastructure between 2008 and 2015 is a whopping R69-billion. This involves building new water infrastructure, such as dams and ancillary infrastructure, and the rehabilitation and repair of existing infrastructure.

According to water expert Professor Anthony Turton from the Free State University’s Centre for Environmental Management, South Africa has a total water capacity of 38-billion cubic metres and by 2025, which is only 13 years away, we will need 65-billion cubic metres if we are going to grow our economy.

However, to add to the pressure of meeting these targets, Turton said almost a third—or 12.7-billion cubic metres—of our water capacity is not fit for purpose because of the rise of algae in the water.

Turton said that the massive urban population influx has placed massive strain on South Africa’s ageing water infrastructure and created a huge backlog that needs to be met.

“The South African government took its eye off the ball,” said Turton. “We have to fix our water infrastructure, but we also have to deal with the underlying causes.”

The numbers paint a worrying picture, which explains the government’s concerted drive to develop water infrastructure. Turton said that one of the biggest problems facing the department of water affairs is securing the right skills to conceive, implement and maintain the water infrastructure projects that are needed. He argued that the ANC’s policy of cadre deployment is partly responsible for the lack of proper skills in the department.

The department has a staff complement of 4844 but since September last year there have been 884 vacant posts, meaning more than 18% of the department’s posts are vacant.

According to the “Estimates of National Expenditure” document released during the February 22 budget, the department has experienced problems in filling vacancies at the technical, engineering and scientist level.

“The department also experiences difficulty in retaining individuals with skills as the market is highly competitive,” said the document.

Political economist Nic Borain said that the government is well aware of where the challenges lie in water infrastructure roll-out and maintenance, but it has not put in place solutions to meet these challenges head on.

“There is no new information about how to deal with these problems,” said Borain. “It’s not enough to say we are really going to try harder this time.”

Borain said that South Africa’s water supply is one of its key medium- to long-term threats. Turton said the government’s planned water infrastructure roll-out has one major flaw: that it does not deal with the recycling of water.

Turton said this is key to South Africa meeting its water requirements going forward. He said if the 12.7-billion cubic metres of water, which is not fit for purpose, had been treated to remove nitrates and phosphates the water would not be riddled with algae.

Borain indicated that it is important to acknowledge that South Africa is not alone in struggling with these problems.
“Governments always struggle with this stuff,” said Borain.

“South Africa is not uniquely disastrous in getting adequate return on capital and effort invested in infrastructure development.”

Cash flows into dam projects
The “Estimates of National Expenditure” document released during the budget last week details two mega infrastructure projects, five large infrastructure projects and 64 small infrastructure projects.

The mega projects include the Olifants River resources development project, in which R3.1-billion will be spent on developing the De Hoop Dam and R13.1-billion will be spent on water-distribution systems linked to the project.

An amount of R2.9-billion was allocated to dam safety rehabilitation, in which the structural and operational safety of 315 dams will be assessed, with problems areas rectified.

The large infrastructure projects include the Clanwilliam Dam wall being raised at a cost of R2.2-billion, which will net the country an additional 10-million cubic metres of water a year. The Mokolo-Crocodile water augmentation project, which will deliver water to Eskom’s Medupi power station and other industries, will cost R2-billion.

The Tzaneen and Namitwa dams in the Great Letaba River development project will have their walls raised too, at a cost of R2-billion, and the Nandoni water-treatment works and distribution network in Limpopo will cost R2-billion.—Lloyd Gedye


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