/ 19 September 2023

Report finds KZN water rights marred by corruption, inequality and neglect

Visible pollution such as plastic bags can be removed. The same is not true for antibiotics

The South African Human Rights Commission has condemned KwaZulu-Natal municipalities and water service authorities (WSAs) for violating the rights of citizens to access sufficient clean water. 

Its inquiry into water service delivery revealed that critical infrastructure is collapsing due to rampant neglect, lack of investment, corruption and a lack of skills and capacity to maintain it to meet spiralling demand for the commodity.

Among the damning allegations the SAHRC raised against municipalities and WSAs during the release of a new report are that officials simply do not care about the ‘Batho Pele’ (people first) principle and that municipalities are not allocating 8% of their budgets to maintenance, as required by National Treasury regulations.

The commission also found that the water tanker procurement system is being abused for commercial gain, while residents with money and connections receive water deliveries at the expense of those without these privileges.

SAHRC commissioner Chris Nissen, speaking during the release of the watchdog’s KZN Water Inquiry Report in Durban on Monday, said the commission had launched an investigation into “the current water crisis” in the province after receiving 600 complaints since 2020. 

The complaints related to wide-spread water shortages and, in some instances, no access to water for more than seven days; inconsistent water supply or water disconnection; lack of alternative measures like water tankers; poor water quality/ polluted water and water billing disputes. 

The SAHRC’s KZN office held a hearing into the complaints from 15 to 19 August 2022 which it invited municipalities and WSAs to attend to hold officials accountable for the violations.

Nissen said the 154-page report had found that municipalities and water authorities across the province had violated the rights of citizens to access clean water, but the perpetrators “came up with excuses” for their failures when they appeared before the panel.

“There were lots of complaints [from municipalities] about ageing infrastructure and vandalised infrastructure but we cannot live 30 years into democracy and not budget for maintenance and repairs,” Nissen said.

Some municipalities, which were asked to provide additional details referred to in their submissions and panel deliberations failed to do so. These included eThekwini Municipality, Amajuba District Municipality, Newcastle Local Municipality, Zululand District Municipality, Umzinyathi District Municipality and uThukela District Municipality.

The commission’s Philile Ntuli highlighted the findings and recommendations of the report saying the SAHRC had embarked on the inquiry mindful that South Africa is a water scarce country, however, KZN is relatively water rich and receives more precipitation than the national average.

“We deliver these findings cognisant that KZN has experienced significant recent shocks to its water system including the unrest of July 2021, the floods in April 2022 and more recently, the flooding in June 2022 as well as the news out of Beijing that eThekwini will be hosting the World Water Conference in 2025,” she said.

Ntuli said the report found that the government had a constitutional obligation to “respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights contained in the Bill of Rights, in particular the right of access to sufficient water” as stated in Section 27 (1) (b) as well as an international obligation to ensure reasonable measures are taken to ensure “the progressive realisation” of these rights.  However, it found that in KZN, municipalities in general and WSAs in particular had violated residents’ right to access clean drinking water, as provided for in international, constitutional, and statutory provisions.

“This violation of rights is aggravated by the pervasive sense of neglect, disregard and in some instances, contempt, for people’s suffering, and their attempts to engage with their municipality through officials and elected representatives,” the report found.

“The extent of the challenges in access to water, and the rights violations experienced by communities, evidenced by the complaints tabled by residents and communities across the province of KZN, is profound, and indicative of systemic failures in water provisioning, and the violation of multiple human rights.”

The report found that the impact on the rights, livelihoods and dignity of communities was “particularly aggravated” in impoverished communities and vulnerable households, while the impact on businesses, and the resulting undermining of employment, livelihoods and local economic development was “devastating”. 

It also noted that there was a “stark disparity” between urban and rural communities in terms of access to water and sanitation and a disproportionate impact in respect of the lack of water on women and girls.

Ntuli said the commission had noted the challenges faced by municipalities in redressing apartheid-era spatial planning that excluded the majority of communities from basic service provision, the inheritance of ageing and dilapidated infrastructure, and the overwhelming demand for water far exceeding supply. 

However, these challenges outlined by municipalities and WSAs reflected poor planning and management of resources, particularly in relation to non-revenue water and maintenance of infrastructure, a reluctance to deal with corruption and non-performance, and an inability to plan and budget for future needs and expenditure.

“The commission finds unacceptable the failure of the state, 28-years post-apartheid, to transform colonial and apartheid-era spatial planning to benefit previously excluded and disadvantaged communities. The violation of rights evidenced in complaints received and

submissions made are indicative of a gross dereliction of duty on the part of municipalities and WSAs to enact reasonable measures to deliver on rights and fulfil their obligations to communities, in flagrant disregard of international, constitutional, and statutory obligations,” the report found.

It found that most components of the infrastructure used by water boards have outlived their design life, with “the entity largely operating with unreliable infrastructure, and failure of these components is imminent”. 

The Department of Water and Sanitation, the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs and the KZN Legislature had also failed to ensure municipalities do not violate residents rights to access clean drinking water, according to the report.

E-coli levels below the Umbilo WWTW have been excessively high for years, crippling the local Queensburgh Caravan Park and other businesses along the river.

The commission made a raft of recommendations holding municipalities, water authorities and government departments responsible to confront the challenges and to report back to it within 12 months, adding that it had partnered with the University of Witwatersrand to develop the South Africa Water Justice Tracker project. 

The project will track the progressive realisation of the right of access to sufficient water and provide an online portal for citizens to easily access water services data, a first in the country, starting with KZN, Limpopo and Mpumalanga, before issuing a report to parliament, anticipated in 2024.

Among the SAHRC’s wide ranging 49 recommendations in the report are:

• The DWS must annually monitor municipalities’ implementation of Blue Drop and

Green Drop report findings, including technical measures proposed, and report to the commission annually.

• Cogta must review the funding model for municipalities and consider the provisioning of a special grant to effect upgrades and rehabilitation of critical water infrastructure and report to the commission within 12 months.

• In appropriate instances, Cogta must enact measures to declare a state of disaster in terms of the Disaster Management Act 57 of 2002, to escalate the immediate restoration of water services, and to effect necessary repairs to damaged or neglected infrastructure.

•Cogta must, where appropriate, invoke powers in terms of section 139 of the Constitution, to put municipalities under administration for failing to deliver water.

• Cogta must ensure the KZN Water Master Plan considers the regression in

municipality performance, and identifies “radical measures” to confront this, “including fraud and corruption, and intra-political party fighting within the public service”.

• Water boards must prioritise development of additional bulk-water supply schemes,

 undertake infrastructure maintenance and replacement, investigate prospects and opportunities in groundwater exploration and excavation and confront governance challenges.

• District municipalities must create dedicated customer services divisions with call-centres to receive and refer complaints. These must have standard operating procedures to ensure the maintenance of a register of complaints and a maximum (six-hour) turn-around time to restore water service delivery.

• Municipalities must “urgently address the emerging corruption relating to the water tankering system and overtime system, investigate allegations of damage to infrastructure and manipulation of the tender mechanism”.  They must implement consequence management measures for failure by officials to perform.

• The indigent register model in rural communities must be revived to ascertain which households are entitled to receive free basic water, while ensuring revenue collection from households that can afford to pay for water services.

• The KZN Legislature must conduct oversight to ensure the implementation of the recommendations of the report.