Schools have tanks – but no water

In South Africa, more than 21-million people don’t have a regular supply of clean water, according to the water and sanitation department’s own figures.

People don’t have water because of a mixture of corruption, uneven population growth and poor engineering capacity at a municipal level. It is a crisis that has rolled over from one year to the next and from one budget to the next.

Taps have stayed dry.

The Covid-19 outbreak requires people to wash their hands regularly to help prevent spread the virus. The government suddenly had to solve what it could not solve before. At the best of times, without a water sector crippled by systemic corruption, this would be a difficult task. With learners in two grades already back in the classroom, it has resulted in the adoption of an emergency, R600-million solution to get water tanks to more than 3 000 schools.

In a country where people don’t have basic services because of corruption, a suspicious population has started asking questions about this rollout and the state’s ability to fill — and refill — the 10 000-litre and 5 000-litre tanks at predominantly rural schools.


The programme to provide a total of 3 126 schools with water tanks, using Rand Water as an implementing agent, was announced in April by water and sanitation minister Lindiwe Sisulu. Schools also need handwashing stations installed outside classrooms. The number of learners affected is not clear because schools have very different numbers, but it is not unusual for there to be 500 matrics in a school, one of the two grades to return to school in level 3 of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Last week a political fight broke out over the programme, which, according to the Democratic Alliance, had delivered tanks to only 354 schools nationally by the end of May. This was sparked by claims on social media that the KwaZulu-Natal education department had paid R170 000 for a 5 000-litre tank.

In response, Kwazi Mthethwa, spokesperson for KwaZulu-Natal education MEC Kwazi Mshengu, said that, on average, KwaZulu-Natal paid R28 000 for a 5 000-litre tank and R6 500 for a handwashing station, with the bulk of the price being made up of transport, installation and refilling the tanks for six months.

Now the DA wants Sisulu and provincial education authorities to -provide an itemised breakdown of costs and service providers retained by Rand Water and other agencies being used by the provinces.

 At the same time, education officials in KwaZulu-Natal have expressed concern about the ability to fill the tanks and keep them filled because of a shortage of water tankers to transport water to schools, mostly in rural areas, and the cost of doing so.

A senior official, who asked not to be named because he is not allowed to talk to the media, said that although the majority of schools in need had received water tanks, most had not been filled.

The official said the department was dependent on the other roleplayers to have the tanks filled and maintain a regular supply as more and more learners returned to school under level 3 of lockdown.

“There are still schools that don’t have tanks because we are battling to get enough, but the biggest problem is not there. The big issue is that we have tanks that are sitting there, empty, because we can’t get them filled. That is the biggest challenge for us, especially because we are going to have more grades coming back into the system any time now,’’ the official said.

“It’s going to be hectic. I really don’t know how we are going to manage this. We are already struggling badly with only two grades back at school. We are battling to get them filled and to keep them filled.”

Mthethwa said the department was using the Development Bank of South Africa, the state-owned Independent Development Trust and the Coega Development Corporation as implementing agents. They in turn had retained 147 companies to install water tanks and a further 37 to install handwashing stations.

He undertook to provide more detail about how the department planned to maintain a water supply to schools once the tanks had been installed, but had not done so at the time of publication.

Water and sanitation department spokesperson Yonela Diko said reports that tanks had been procured by the KwaZulu-Natal department of education at exorbitant prices were incorrect.

He said the department’s water tank acquisition and distribution plan drawn up by its water command centre had been presented to the National Coronavirus Command Centre and accepted.

The department of education had requested that the water department extend its tank programme — the best way to supply water to areas with no water — to schools.

Diko said the spending on the tanks was “less than market related”.

“Every expenditure has been monitored, every tank is accounted for, every penny is overseen by the auditor general’s office,” Diko said.

“From the very start of the procurement process of water tanks for schools, the department of water and sanitation, along with Rand Water — the entity contracted by the education department to supply water tanks countrywide — wanted to ensure that both the national treasury and the auditor general are involved in the process, both for oversight and for ensuring that all procurement processes are followed.”

He confirmed that according to the department and Rand Water, 5 000-litre tanks cost between R4 500 and R5 000 each, while a 10 000-litre tank costs R9 000 to R10 000. The rest of the price per unit was made up of transportation and installation and refilling the tanks for the next six months, which made up the “bulk of the costs”.

A full report on the programme — including an itemised breakdown of costs, would be presented to Cabinet and then made public, he said.

Rand Water spokesperson Teboho Joala said the entity had been appointed to implement the project using contractors from the government’s centralised database of suppliers. All equipment and services were “within the market price range”.

Joala said that in addition to providing tanks, they were also looking at drilling boreholes and other ways of supplying schools with permanent running water as the second part of the project. He said that thus far the education department had provided R200-million towards the project.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper
Storyteller.

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