/ 26 October 2018

Mboweni targets water crisis

People in Giyani
People in Giyani, Limpopo, must find water where they can. Under former minister Nomvula Mokonyane, a water project to supply 55 villages was stopped because of corruption. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Quoting people from Dickens to Isaiah, newly entrenched Finance Minister Tito Mboweni positioned himself as the purveyor of righteousness and enemy of corruption in his medium-term budget policy speech on Wednesday.

One of the key evils he vowed to quash is the country’s rampant misuse of water. “The Giyani water project is … a cesspool of corruption,” he declared, referring to the botched Limpopo-based project, which is plagued by allegations of poor management and financial woes. “The challenges range from a complete disregard for supply chain rules to poor contract management, resulting in irregular expenditure.”

Initiated in 2014, the initiative was intended to supply 55 villages with water. It started with a budget of R502-million, but this quickly ballooned.

Under the direction of the former minister of water and sanitation, Nomvula Mokonyane, the project has now ground to a halt. The appointed contractor, Khato Civils, retrenched 100 employees in the past few weeks amid claims that the department owes it R44-million.

It is estimated that it will take another R4.5-billion — bringing the overall cost to R6.7-billion — to get it completed. With R2.2-billion already spent, phase one of the project is unfinished and phase two has not started.

Next, Mboweni turned his attention to the water crisis in the Vaal River system. Parts of the river have become polluted by raw sewage. The government is blaming municipalities for mismanagement.

The Giyani and Vaal water issues are symptoms of a larger administrative crisis. The department has been plagued by a litany of complaints about corruption and wasteful expenditure. Six months ago, the auditor general reported that irregular spending by the department had topped R6.5-billion.

Mboweni outlined some plans to plug the biggest holes. First, he called for accountability at a national level to ensure that “appropriate action” is taken against all guilty departmental officials implicated in the auditor general’s report.

As for Giyani, President Cyril Ramaphosa would soon be visiting the area “to see exactly what has happened and what needs to be done”, Mboweni said.

And to tackle the Vaal issue, Mboweni said that he had secured the support of the military “to assist with engineering and other expertise to resolve the Vaal River crisis”. Engineers from the national defence force had already been deployed and were working on solutions, he said.

In a nod to the urgency of the water situation, Mboweni outlined a reprioritisation of R3.4-billion in 2018-2019 “to provide water, improve infrastructure and offset the economic costs of drought”.

“A decade of poor economic performance and high unemployment has reinforced the urgent need for a comprehensive programme of reforms to change the underlying structure of the economy,” according to the policy detail.

It highlights that the water industry is one of those needing immediate reform.

But in a country that suffers from severe drought, with water projects plagued by delays and corruption, and that loses almost 40% of its drinking water to wastage (according to a 2010 Water Resource Commission report), is R3.4-billion anything more than a drop in the proverbial ocean?

“The short answer is no,” said water management expert Anthony Turton.

His “back of the envelope” estimate is that the water situation calls for a budget of about R1-trillion. “It is vastly larger than the relatively small sums of money that they’re throwing at it.”

Nevertheless, he said, the money could have a positive effect if used prudently.

“If you use that money in a focused, controlled way, using competent people that aren’t going to steal it, it can still make a difference,” he said.

As for the military’s aid in the Vaal water crisis, “the dying animal is giving a last kick”, said Turton. “We hope like hell they can turn things around, but, in all reality, probably not, because they don’t have the core skills.”

The defence force had built up a cohort of engineers for wastewater treatment with experts from Cuba, however, so “it might be that they can use their Cuban advisers to help solve the problem”, Turton said. “Let’s see what they can do.”

But to address the national water issues properly, the rot at local level had to be tackled. “At the heart of this whole crisis is the dysfunction of municipalities. The national and provincial tiers are held up by municipalities, and some of them are functioning in name only. We don’t have the ability to self-correct,” Turton said.

In his speech, Mboweni said municipalities were racking up millions of rands in unpaid water bills. “Municipalities owe more than R23-billion to service providers, mainly to Eskom and water service agencies.”

According to the policy detail, most municipalities have failed to make any infrastructural changes, despite support from the national government.

“Although the rules have been changed to allow municipalities to use grant funds to refurbish infrastructure, develop water conservation projects and maintain roads — if certain conditions are met — few municipalities have taken advantage of these provisions,” the document states.

Meanwhile, more and more water is being wasted and contaminated, people’s health is being threatened and unpaid water bills are mounting.

The medium-term budget

policy outlined a new step aimed at addressing this. It vetoes a new grant the government had proposed to help municipalities facing financial crisis. Instead, the funds set aside for this will “be reprioritised for other initiatives that will assist the turnaround of municipalities”. Ultimately, sustainable financial recovery will “require improved governance within the affected municipalities”.

And “better use of grants, together with improved maintenance, will also reduce pollution from wastewater treatment works, which has become a more pressing concern in a number of municipalities”, the document states.

Improved infrastructure and water management at a municipal level could put an end to the country’s national water woes. According to Turton, it could also eventually help to expand the economy.

“I personally believe water is a critical element in the foundation of economic rejuvenation for our country. Water is the ultimate economic enabler,” he said.