/ 15 March 2019

This is why we don’t have water

Emergency: Members of the SANDF at the Vaal River water purification plant in Sebokeng in January.
Emergency: Members of the SANDF at the Vaal River water purification plant in Sebokeng in January. (Gallo/Netwerk24/Deaan Vivier)

The department of water and sanitation is crippled. 

Where water should be flowing, it isn’t. Where sewage shouldn’t be flowing, it is. The leaps made to give people water after 1994 are being reversed, and some 20-million people no longer get regular clean water. This is despite enough dams and pipelines being built to get water to 95% of the population.

Most of this failure is the result of a cocktail of corruption, ineptitude and a shortage of engineering skills. Water projects are the biggest tenders available in provinces, with projects running into the millions or billions of rands, and they attract a lot of corruption. The department is running 15 projects each worth more than R1-billion, and 53 projects worth between R250-million and R1-billion.

Corruption accelerated during the tenure of former minister Nomvula Mokonyane. Irregular expenditure grew from a negligible R13-million in 2009 to R4-billion by the time she left in 2017 — almost a quarter of the department’s budget.

The department also maxed out its R2.6-billion overdraft facility with the Reserve Bank and had it frozen, while owing contractors more than R1.5-billion.

Little detail of what this all means was revealed by the department, beyond the new minister, Gugile Nkwinti, telling Parliament that he has inherited “a mess”. But this changed last month, when his department updated its parliamentary portfolio committee on the status of all its projects. What has emerged is a picture of dozens of projects delayed by a mix of corruption, angry residents, dubious contracts and general ineptitude on all sides.

The chairperson of the portfolio committee — the ANC’s Lulu Johnson — began by expressing “concern” because the department did not have a director general or a chief financial officer. “Countless” suspensions at the department had also taken place without the committee being told about them, he said.

Leonard Mannus, the department’s acting deputy director general, gave a Powerpoint presentation, digging into the failure of its projects. He explained how projects, from tiny to giant, were not working, and gave an idea of how they would be completed.

The most critical delays are in building new damsand raising the walls on old dams. In a semi-arid country that hasregular droughts, dams are crucial to allow peopleand industry to survive. It is dams that kept Cape Town going and that provide water to Gauteng, where there are no large rivers. Without dams, the next El Niño will mean cropfailure and people going thirsty.

In KwaZulu-Natal, R110-million has been budgeted to raise Hazelmere Dam’s wall. But because of a dispute,the contractor terminated the contract. Terminations mean the department has to pay penalty fees, and then to tender for a new contract. All this adds costs. A similar “contractual dispute” has delayed a R5-million dam for the Groot Marico area in North West, where crippling droughts regularly kill livestock and hammer farming. The dispute went unresolved and the contract expired before work could start.

In Ventersdorp, in the same province, a R16-million dam has been delayed because “top management” didn’t sign off on the appointment of an environmental control officer.

In Koffiefontein, in the Free State, a dam has been stopped by residents who are demanding that more local labour be used.

A budget of R209-million exists for raising the wall of Limpopo’s Tzaneen Dam. The department had to take the project over from Lepelle Northern Water,a subsidiary of the water department that has been mired in corruption, especially because of its failure to get water to people in Giyani.

A “loss of public confidence” and a number of cost overruns and contractual irregularities have resulted in the Tzaneen project being years behind schedule.

To solve these delays, the department said it has referred companies to the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) and other arms of government. The three companies involved in the Giyani project — LTE Consulting, Khato Civils and South Zambezi — are being chased by the unit for the R2.2-billion spent on that project. The SIU has asked that these 2014 contracts for the project be declared null and void.

Recovering misspent money is just one step that needs to be taken. The department must finish the projects. It told the parliamentary committee that the department’s building unit is now being used to complete work on many dams and pipelines.

In extreme cases, other solutions have been used. The R129-million Sebokeng wastewater treatment plant has been delayed by “constant community and labour unrest”, among other issues. The army has been deployed to stop the unrest and get the project completed.

That project appears to be moving along, and broken sewage plants are getting fixed. But other projects are still hamstrung by the R4-billion hole in the water department’s budget, and the nearly 1 000 unfilled jobs.

The parliamentary presentation did, at least, show the scale of the water crisis inS outh Africa.