/ 31 January 2020

Water services worse than in 1994 

Troubled waters: A girl collects water from a spring. In South Africa there are 5.3-million households without access to safe and reliable drinking water.
The Sekhukhune District Municipality, plagued by allegations of corruption involving irregular expenditure, does not have the money to provide water to all its residents. (Delwyn Verasamy)

More than 5.3-million households and 21-million people don’t have clean water, despite money being spent on dams and pipelines to deliver water to 95% of the population. Sipho Kings looks at how R1.3-trillion worth of infrastructure has been subject to so much corruption and mismanagement that many places are worse off than in 1994, leaving the state with a R898-billion bill this decade

In the minutes of its national executive committee lekgotla last week, the ANC said 87% of people have access to water. In admitting that “more still needs to be done” it blamed “ageing and failing infrastructure, lack of investment and implementation of operations and maintenance, vandalism, theft, corruption and a culture of nonpayment [for] services”.

But, just two months ago, Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu launched her department’s water “master plan” with another number buried inside. The headlines afterwards were about the R898-billion she said was needed to fix South Africa’s water and sanitation infrastructure. But deeper inside the 400 pages was another admission: “The current percentage of the population receiving reliable water services [is] lower than it was in 1994.”

Instead of the 87% — or the 95% that the ANC campaigns on in elections — the master plan said, on four different occasions, that a lower percentage of homes have reliable water than when the party came to power. More homes have water now, but as a percentage of all homes fewer have water now than in 1994.

This translates to 5.3-million households. With a national average of more than four people per household (according to Statistics South Africa) this means 21-million of the 60-million people in the country either do not have water, or have a water source that could make them sick.

And more than 14-million people do not have access to safe sanitation.

This isn’t a story about the state not wanting to give people their constitutionally guaranteed right to water (which works out, practically, at 25 litres a person a day). Since 1994, it has built infrastructure to get water to 95% of the population.

The master plan said this focus on “new water services” since 1994 has meant: “The operational reality is that existing infrastructure was ‘stretched’ because of significant underinvestment in infrastructure maintenance and delays in renewal of aged infrastructure.”

A reliable water service means a household has clean drinking water for 300 days a year, with any interruption not lasting longer than two days at a time.

Instead, mismanagement, corruption and a skills shortage have meant that a third of all water infrastructure doesn’t work. The water master plan gave the total value of all South Africa’s water infrastructure — the 500 dams, 290 000km of pipelines and five-million taps — at more than R1.3-trillion.

This failure to maintain and invest in new water infrastructure is why, last week, Sisulu was in QwaQwa to announce R220-million in funding to get water to people that had been protesting because they don’t have water. It’s why Gauteng will run out of water at some point in this decade, because a new dam in Lesotho has not been built to store more water. And it’s why children continue to die of diarrhoea after drinking polluted water — like in 2014 in Bloemhof when three babies died and dozens of adults ended up in hospital.

Nearly half of water treatment works are “in a poor or critical condition, causing health risks” and 11% are “dysfunctional and in a collapsed state”. In 10 municipalities, less than 30% of the population has access to a reliable water supply. Access to water is the worst in the Eastern Cape (49%) and Limpopo (53% of households).

A third of all water leaks out of broken pipes (the best practice is 10%) and 83% of stations that monitor water quality in South Africa rivers are picking up pollution.

And it’s becoming worse. The master plan notes: “Unfortunately, the reliability of these services is currently declining.”

To keep tabs on infrastructure, the South African Institute for Civil Engineers releases a regular report card. When awarding water infrastructure a “D” in 2017, it said: “The unchanged low grade [D] belies the further deterioration in the ageing bulk water infrastructure portfolio as a result of insufficient maintenance and neglect of renewal.” Of the country’s 278 municipalities, 202 do not have a civil engineer — up from 126 in 2005, says the institute.

The water master plan gives an overview of the overwhelming, and competing, interests and problems that have led to 21-million people not having clean water. The first issue is the number of groups involved — from the water department to energy, minerals, agriculture, human settlements, local and national government — and the fact that “their mandates are not always clear”. The National Planning Commission sounded an alarm about this in 2011 with its own diagnostic report.

Fixing all this ostensibly lies at the old and crumbling door of the water department. But it is technically insolvent. The master plan says that a “serious shortage in technical skills” has meant the department “continues to over-rely on consultants in key strategic areas, including planning and programme management”.

The government is also R333-billion short of the R898-billion that the master plan said needed to be spent this decade to fix water infrastructure. This funding gap could also increase, given the history of water projects attracting “poor project planning, unsolicited bidding, construction delays, vandalism, poor contract and financial management, unrealistic expectations of users and theft of infrastructure”.

Of the R1.3-trillion of water infrastructure, R332-billion needs to be fixed or rebuilt — and 10% of that is in need of “critical renewal”.

The problem is that selling water, and getting money from treasury to deliver water to people who cannot afford to buy it, brings in only R98-billion a year. That’s R10-billion less than the government and municipalities need just to buy water (and electricity to move that water), as well as pay staff. Those municipalities also owe the water department R10.5-billion, and 43% of the people who should pay for water do not — costing the economy R26-billion a year.

Fixing that would nearly make up the shortfall in paying for the master plan. And, although the plan says that water is too cheap and will have to become more expensive, it admits: “Users will probably not allow increases in tariffs if simultaneous control over spending is not clearly demonstrated.”

This is also without the added effect of climate change, which the master plan says: “Adds significant additional stress to an already stressed environment and is changing rainfall patterns in ways that we have yet to understand fully.”