/ 8 March 2024

Don’t politicise water crisis, Human Rights Commission urges

Chatsworth Water
Some city residents have had no water for 150 days, yet have received bills of up to R60 000. (Rogan Ward)

Durban residents are fed up with the water crisis in the city, which has seen some of them go without the resource for up to 150 days while others have had no piped water to their homes but are still being billed for it by the eThekwini municipality.

The residents have demanded a stop to the alleged “politicking” and “sabotage” of the essential commodity and want the municipality to work together with communities and the private sector and find solutions to the city’s water quality and supply problems.

eThekwini’s tourism businesses that rely on spending by holidaymakers have been severely affected by water cuts in parts of the city, and beach closures due to dangerously high levels of E. Coli bacteria in the water, over the past two years.

Rohan Roshan Lil-Ruthan, representative of the Verulam Water Crisis Committee, told a South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) town hall meeting of experts, convened at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, to discuss the water crisis this week that some residents had received water bills of between R20 000 and R60 000, despite having no service to their homes for 150 days.

Lil-Ruthan told the meeting that the town of Verulam was “severely impacted” to the point that four people had burned to death in a furniture factory fire in the town after firefighters had to travel to Umhlanga to fill fire engine tanks because there was no water flowing to hydrants. 

He alleged that the water supply had been sabotaged, citing a whistleblower who reported seeing a chain and a lock over a valve, preventing water from flowing from the local reservoir.

“On 1 March, I received a distress call that a factory in Verulam was burning. They said the fire department arrived with small tanks and realised it is not a small factory, it is a big factory, and they did not realise that there were four individuals trapped inside,” he said.

“The nearest place to get water was Tongaat, but they were told Tongaat’s water is down, and then the nearest was Umhlanga. The factory was totally burned down and four people were killed. 

“That it is a case of … culpable homicide against eThekwini because they tried to get water but there was none. God forbid if a plane goes down and there is no water.

“This is something very serious — if these officials are interfering at these great lengths, they have blood on their hands,” he said.

Lil-Ruthan alleged that municipal officials were aware of the locked valve and had sent emails advising that the community not be informed because “heads will roll”.

Former eThekwini city manager Mike Sutcliffe said the metro had significantly underspent by R33 billion on infrastructure, including roads, water and electricity, over the past 10 years. He said the maintenance budget, which should be at a level of 10% of the value of property and equipment, had dropped from 7% to between 3% and 4% for the same period.

“We have got this twin problem of underspending and reduction in maintenance spending that we have to deal with,” Sutcliffe said. He estimated that the city’s infrastructure assets were valued at around R1 trillion, which at a 2% replacement rate would cost R2 billion a year.

Sutcliffe said the city had struggled to recover from the April 2022, and subsequent, flood damage to infrastructure and there was a lack of co-ordination between provincial and local government to deal with the repairs.

A report from the auditor general had singled out eThekwini for several problems including fraud and corruption, a lack of performance targeting and measurement and a lack of information. 

He said the city should supply information, such as a list of all the tankers supplying water to communities, to ensure transparency in how money was being spent.

The city employed about 3 500 people in water and sanitation and 150 of these were professionals, technologists and technicians who should be retained for succession planning.

Ratepayer Pat Reddy agreed with Sutcliffe that underspending is a problem.

“We as ratepayers don’t have oversight as to how our money is spent. As Dr Sutcliffe said, there is enough money, but how are we spending it? How can we go from being the best city in the world to where we are now — a total disaster?” Reddy said.

“The leadership in the city is letting us down. The city always talks about sabotage, the floods and all the impacts. I’m sure, with the management and technical team we have, the city could have handled these things, if it had done proper planning.”

Retired eThekwini city planning engineer Rob Dyer said the city’s affirmative action employment policy should be reviewed as it discouraged many qualified white, coloured and Indian professionals from bothering to apply for jobs at the metro. The water and sanitation department was also “top heavy” with managers, he added.

“Developing water and sanitation is an engineering task — engineers should run the show — but what we have there is over-administrative and non-technical management structures,” Dyer said.

Chris Fennemore said he had resigned from eThekwini after being assaulted by a union representative and receiving death threats after exposing problems with water sludge.

“eThekwini does have a significant amount of skills, some world beaters as well, but they are very constrained because of structural issues. Many consultants and contractors won’t do work with eThekwini because there is no point going through supply-chain management because there is corruption,” he said.

Fennemore suggested employing professionals to manage the supply chain to “dilute the crooks” who are stealing from the system and to use the government information system to track the water reticulation system and ensure transparency.

Adopt a River founder Janet Simkins said water quality was “a huge problem … and perhaps even a crisis” facing the city. In addition, water hyacinth had been seen growing in dams, such as Inanda Dam, which historically have not had problems with the alien, invasive weed.  

She said the private sector had volunteered to provide diesel for the Ohlanga wastewater pump-station generator, which keeps the pump operating during load-shedding when it ran out, but the offer had been declined as “processes” had to be followed.

Head of eThekwini water and sanitation Ednick Msweli said his department was working on some of the issues raised during the meeting but declined to comment in detail due to time constraints. 

He proposed that the SAHRC receive further written submissions regarding the problems and consolidate them before handing them to the city.

“The attitude of the city in an engagement like this is that we are trying to come with an open mind, so I will not be responding to inputs made. We have noted the challenges that have been raised and some of them we are aware of already and are working through them,” Msweli said.

“What we want is — how do we fix the problem? As a city, we have a good understanding of the challenges, and we think we are working through it, but clearly it is not fast enough. We want to hear from stakeholders how we can speed that up.”

SAHRC chief executive Vusumuzi Mkhize said the water crisis was a “very sensitive life-threatening issue” and welcomed the proposal that the commission collate further submissions from the public from which immediate, medium-term and long-term solutions could be drawn.

“eThekwini has got capacity, which may not be in the municipality, but it has the capacity to help solve the problems … We must be action oriented and we must be solution focused and we must avoid politicisation of the water issue. If we politicise it, we will be here pointing fingers thinking water is an ideology where water is a right to life. 

“Communities should continue to assist us to find a solution to the problem,” Mkhize said