Our water crisis – and make no mistake, it is a crisis – is the result of a comprehensive victory of political imperative over technocratic sense. South Africa is a water-scarce country. Water is the single biggest constraint on growth and improving livelihoods. But the department tasked with securing this precious resource fell prey to internecine politics of the worst kind. Skilled workers have either left or been forced out. Those who stay are ignored or silenced; nobody wants to stick their head above the office divider if that means their job suddenly becomes redundant.
Water affairs has been paralysed. It underspent its last budget by R2-billion and consistently receives qualified audits. The plans and projects that would secure our water future are behind schedule, or fail soon after completion. Tens of billions of rands have been wasted as trillions of litres of water leak out of our faulty systems. The failing is even more comprehensive at a municipal level. Outside of the metros, South Africa’s water infrastructure is in a dire state. Children die from cholera and diarrhoea. Water projects that should stand for half a century collapse after half a decade.
Everyone knew this drought was coming. Everyone knew how desperate the water situation had become – and if they didn’t, then reading this newspaper six months ago would have made it clear. But instead of going public and preparing people and response systems for this entirely anticipated crisis, water affairs was dealing with political upheaval.
A new minister and a new department, taken from the environment department and twinned with the consistently orphaned sanitation department, meant the department’s focus was on transition and all that that brings. In that time the ball was dropped. Delayed construction of dams and ageing infrastructure mean our water systems cannot handle anything extraordinary, and that is what the future will be: extraordinary.
Climate change will make extremes of drought and flood commonplace, forcing us to make hard decisions about who gets water first – and who does not get water at all. Meanwhile, a political standoff with farmers has seen them largely left to their own devices: 40 000 head of cattle dying in KwaZulu-Natal and the price of white maize rising by more than 50% this year. Our water-agriculture nexus has been broken, just like its energy component was broken seven years ago by the same kind of political paralysis, and with the same result.
Politics dictates that little will change. Mines, often built as much on political connections as on ore-bearing seams, will continue to destroy wetlands and rivers. We will pick up the cost of cleaning up that water, and of looking after the people it makes sick. Our neighbours, also hard hit by the drought, will pick up the cost as dirty water flows across our borders, in contravention of our international commitments.
Countless things could have been done – and should have been done – to prevent a drought from turning into a water crisis. They were not. Many things can be done to soften the impact of that water crisis. This time there can be no mistakes.