Only the tip of the tap

The long-predicted disaster has happened—yet the government and officials now feign shock and horror while expressing sympathy for the typhoid victims and pointing fingers at others (“System failures lead to typhoid outbreak”, September 16).

The government has known for a long time that there are serious problems with the quality of our water. The Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, Buyelwa Sonjica, made a passing reference to unsafe drinking water in her budget speech to Parliament earlier this year. The issue also lies buried in the annual reports of the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry.
The most explicit official recognition of the enormity of the problem lies similarly buried as a single paragraph in the second draft of the department’s very long National Water Services Regulation Strategy. This document makes the dire warning that: “Recent surveys of drinking water systems have shown that a significant percentage of these systems do not meet the national minimum standard.”

There is therefore a significant risk that unsafe drinking water supplies could compromise the health of consumers.

A non-governmental specialist, Dr Kevin Wall, of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, made the loudest and most sustained wake-up call in February this year. He presented a devastating critique of our water and waste-water treatment plants, along with shocking photographs, of unconscionable neglect and mismanagement. Led by the then director general, Mike Muller, the department was present to hear and see the evidence presented by Wall.

Wall so shocked the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) that we wrote to Muller. We stated that Wall’s evidence amounted to a national crisis that required proper national publicity. We suggested that all appropriate government departments, along with trade unions and other organs of civil society, needed to discuss what could be done. Our intervention fell on deaf ears.

Samwu recognises that the issue does not lend itself to quick-fix remedies, despite the urgency for action. However, there are at least four aspects of the problem that need to be acknowledged, before remedial action can be taken.

  • The water and sanitation budgets need to be considerably increased. The budgets for these essential services are a tiny percentage of total national expenditure. South Africa is a rich country well able to spend much more on providing 21st-century standards of water and sanitation for everyone. Some municipalities are unable to spend even what is currently available.
  • The commodification of water, within the now fashionable neo liberal ethos in which municipalities are supposed to operate, is highly problematic. It means that the very narrowly focused “bottom line” effective in all municipal water departments makes little if any provision for the fact that water is an essential service. Full cost recovery is the order of the day, with scant regard to the mass poverty that disfigures much of our country.

The “basic water”—provided free to the few among the poor lucky enough to have both access to piped water and to qualify for the provision—is so inadequate that it does not allow for the hand-washing the health authorities are now saying is essential in the typhoid areas. Delmas Municipality, for instance, will not be paying for the medical costs of the typhoid. And the pain and suffering—to say nothing of the deaths—are not factored into Delmas’s strictly business calculations.

  • Making these problems even worse is that the only competency displayed by many municipal managers is lining their own pockets, while councillors seem far more interested in seeing their elected positions as business opportunities rather than representing their electors very basic interests.
  • The department compounds all these problems by failing to exercise its statutory enforcement role. Worse still, this reluctance to expect well-paid managers to manage by meeting the terms of their managerial contracts is reproduced in the aforementioned National Water Services Regulation Strategy.

The department ignored Samwu’s first call, for a national response to the national crisis posed by unsafe drinking water in many parts of our country. With the department’s own worst predictions having now been realised, Samwu repeats this call.

Roger Ronnie is the general secretary of the South African Municipal Workers’ Union

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