Hermanus council in hot water over project

Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry Ronnie Kasrils has been forced to intervene to save the pioneering, award-winning water conservation programme in the Greater Hermanus area after the local New National Party-controlled council deleted the programme from its budget and transferred R1,5-million out of its water conservation fund.

Kasrils travelled to Hermanus last Friday and criticised the Hermanus councillors for their “lack of energy and dedication” and for their failure to produce audited reports of the programme. The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry has regarded the innovative water conservation programme in Hermanus as a role model for the rest of the country, and in 1997 former water affairs minister Kader Asmal went so far as to say that “there are those who say that this is one of the most comprehensive water conservation packages ever to be undertaken anywhere in the world”.

In 1998 it received the Corporate Conservation Award from the Wildlife and Environmental Society and it was one of the first winners of the Impumelelo Innovation Awards. During its first three years of operation, the 12-point water conservation plan reduced per capita consumption of water in Hermanus by 30%, increased revenue by 20%; and made water more affordable to the poor. Instead of a standard tariff of R40 for the first 20E000 litres a month, prices were introduced ranging from R3,50 a month for the first 5E000 litres for the indigent to R11,50 for sub-economic families and R40 for “economic”Efamilies.

The more water Hermanus residents used the more they paid — R497 a month, in the case of “economic” families using 100E000 litres a month.
The programme included alien vegetation removal, school water audits, water loss management, water saving measures in houses, water-wise gardening, water- wise food production, pre-payment meters (called Masekhane meters), new regulations such as a ban on watering gardens between 11am and 3pm when 60% or more water simply evaporates, a communication programme and an informative billing system.

The government matched the alien removal funding and has spent R10-million on this in the area stretching from Botrivier through Greater Hermanus to Stanford. There is a long way to go before alien vegetation in the area is eradicated and some aspects of the 12-point programme need strengthening. Kasrils would like the poor to get a minimum 5E000 litres of water for each plot for free, but it seemed as if the Hermanus area was setting the lead in water conservation in South Africa.

Then on June 26 this year, the chair of the Hermanus council’s water committee, Anton Coetzee, told its members that the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry’s rand-for-rand commitment had been stopped because the verbal agreement for a three-year programme had ended and that no further contributions would be made to the water fund, from which R1,5-million had been taken to pay for a pipeline in Vermont. (The department disputes the claim that its rand-for-rand commitment had been stopped and says it has budgeted for Hermanus in the current financial year, but it will advance the money only if the local council puts its money on the table.)

However, it was also decided that the council would make no contribution to the water conservation programme in the current 2000/2001 budget. At present, 352 people are employed by the Working for Water project in the Hermanus area, but departmental officials are hopeful that the model water conservation programme can be saved after Kasrils’s direct intervention. With new regulations coming that can force local authorities to remove alien vegetation at their own cost, the Hermanus area could pay a high price if it does not co-operate with the department.

In the end, though, the Times of Hermanus made a telling comment when it pointed out that the council had cited the absence of a written agreement with the department for its decisions. “Seen in this light, wouldn’t the honest and honourable action have been refusal of the acclaim, the awards, the international water conference, the visits from foreign experts and television crews and the overseas trips because there was no written, formal agreement?” the newspaper asked.

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