Editorial: Water is a right in SA in name only

Twenty million South Africans don’t have reliable access to clean water. Twenty million. That’s a third of the population. And it’s a conservative number.

You could almost forgive this if the blame could be placed on the past. The apartheid state didn’t care about giving water to large numbers of people. As with electricity, the current government inherited an enormous backlog. But it took the brave — and expensive — decision to make water a right enshrined in the Constitution.

It made South Africa the envy of the world. Most countries do not count water as a right. Activists around the globe used us as an example in arguments to their own governments. In a world where companies and politicians were intent on robbing and hollowing out the nation state, this country put its people first.

Trillions of rands went into building water infrastructure. From capturing the snow melting along the Drakensberg and leading to the water coming out of taps in the Union Buildings in Pretoria, this was a huge undertaking.

But, from the very beginning, it became a source from which unscrupulous people could profit — at the cost of people who desperately needed clean water. Want a tender to drill a borehole so that a rural school in the rolling hills of northern KwaZulu-Natal can have water? Then you have to pay a 10% — or greater — finder’s fee to the local councillor. Forget that the children are already trying to learn in a broken school, where they face the danger of drowning in pit toilets.

This system quickly ensured that people who wanted to do a proper job could not compete. In an ideal world — where we pay taxes, which our elected officials use to better the country — new work is gained through competitive tendering. In the real world, building water systems has become about getting politicians enough Johnnie Walker Blue Label and KFC boxes stuffed with cash.

To accommodate this expenditure, budgets for projects are bloated. So double the money is spent to get a water treatment plant that (theoretically) treats half as much water as was originally planned. Then private companies fiddle the books. Their consultants charge double the normal rate. Incredible shortcuts are taken in the quality of building materials. Cheap water pipes burst and leak drinking water into the ground. Sewerage plants don’t work and release untreated waste into rivers — the same rivers that people are forced to use because their taps are dry. People die of cholera.

But, officially, these are people who have been serviced. Enough money has been spent to supply 95% of all households with water infrastructure. Even if a third of these don’t have flowing water.

Everyone in the water sector knows this. Much like with the revelations coming out in the commission of inquiry into state capture, this is an open secret. People will tell you about officials who were fired — or even shot dead — because their consciences troubled them and they wanted to speak out about this.

Everyone is culpable. From municipalities to the water and sanitation department. The latter is bankrupt, hollowed out during the four-year tenure of Nomvula Mokonyane. It can’t account properly for R4-billion, a quarter of its annual budget.

Again, 20-million South Africans don’t have reliable access to clean water despite trillions of rands having been spent on this. Cape Town was just the start of a crisis that can only happen when a state has been stripped to the bone by hyenas.

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