Carolina's water woes indicate larger structural problems
The last seven months has proved that too many people are responsible for providing water, which means the department supposed to run it doesn't have any authority to force things to work properly.
The town's sensational story started out as a tale of acid mine drainage. It appeared to be another case of mines not managing their environmental impact and polluting a water source.
Edna Molewa, minister of water and environmental affairs, soon announced that her department was investigating four mines in the area for their role in polluting Carolina's dam.
But the people living in the town were still left without water. When the taps were turned off in February, a rapid response team, comprising of everyone imaginable, decided on a long-term plan to build a plant that could supply Carolina if this happened again, and a short-term plan to provide water through Jojos and water tankers.
The Constitution and the Water Act are explicit when it comes to the duty of government to provide water to people, regardless of who polluted it. South Africa is one of a few countries that enshrines access to water as a human right.
The access is given in exacting detail. Each person must get a basic, and free, allowance of 25 litres per day [a bath uses 80 litres, and flushing a toilet takes 10 litres]. To make this easier to manage, this has been equated to 6 000 litres per household per month. This must be within 200 metres of a person's house, with a 98% guarantee of supply throughout the year.
So when the taps ran dry in Carolina, it was clear what Chief Albert Luthuli Municipality had to provide. To help them, knowing that municipalities don't have extra funds lying around, the department of water affairs stepped in with expertise and R270 000 a week.
This is where jurisdiction becomes a problem – where the fuzzy lines have emerged thanks to this crisis. Water Affairs is the custodian of every drop of water in the country. So any water anybody uses is borrowed from them. It issues licences giving access to a certain amount of water, in an area, for a certain time period.
This water has to be returned in a decent state, which is why municipalities have sewage works and strive to pass the Green Drop audit of these works each year.
For a town to get water it has to approach its local Water Service Authority, which is normally the district municipality. In Carolina's case this is the Gert Sibanda District Municipality. This body is the legal provider of water in its area, and no two can overlap.
Water Affairs then works out where the water will come from and grants the request. In Carolina the department said water could be taken out of the Boesmanspruit Dam. It then falls to the local municipality to act as a water services provider. This means that it is directly responsible for getting water to people and upholding their constitutionally-guaranteed rights to access.
This places the supply of water to people in the hands of local government, and not with water affairs. This is a serious problem for the department as it means they supply water to a certain point, then have no control of what happens after that. All it can do is politely hint at what the municipalities should do, and give them plans and guidelines of what their best course of action might be.
The Blue and Green Drop reports are the most public of these hints and nudges. While getting a pass for one of these isn't mandatory, water affairs is slowly making sure that it is the gauge by which municipalities are measured.
Last year's Blue Drop for Carolina, through its Chief Albert Luthuli Municipality, was scathing. The municipality came third last in a province where the race for bottom place was tight, with a score of 18 out of 100. It concluded: "The ability of the following [last three] municipalities to supply safe water continuously is of great concern."
It then issued a warning to all the smaller areas around Carolina, "to not consume the tap water without taking appropriate measures to improve the drinking water quality".
And it was in reference to this report that Molewa blew her lid last week. This followed a court order telling the local and district municipalities to supply water within 72 hours. Interestingly, while the minister was a respondent to the case, she was not included in the order because the judge understood that her department could do little more than it had.
As the Mail & Guardian's editorial heralded last week, this is one of the few times that a minister has read the riot act to other departments, however politely she did it. And this is a warning for the future, where municipalities are constantly failing to give the level of service delivery that they are mandated to, but nobody wants to step on anyone else's toes.
But where does this leave Carolina? Water affairs and the municipality say the water is clean – several PR stunts have provided pictures of municipal officials drinking the tap water – but the locals don't believe them. And the municipality is appealing the judgment.