/ 8 September 2022

Will a single water board solve the water problems in KwaZulu-Natal?

After visiting KwaZulu-Natal on Wednesday
Flooding in KwaZulu-Natal. File photo Rajesh Jantilala/AFP/Getty

Residents and business owners in KwaZulu-Natal say that the water problems in the province have been ongoing for almost a decade, but that the past few years have been progressively worse. People have been without water for days at a time, which affects their lives as well as their businesses. Some residents use their government grant money to ensure that they have some water to carry out their daily activities.  

As we previously reported, residents believe that the main issue is water purification and piping it to residents, rather than a lack of funds. 

However, the situation is more bleak. The eThekwini municipality needs about R20-billion to fix the ailing water infrastructure, which is one of the causes of the water woes the province has seen over the years, says eThekwini municipality mayor Mxolisi Kaunda.

Speaking at the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) inquiry into the issues of water access last month, Ednick Msweli, head of water and sanitation in eThekwini municipality, said that the water issues were caused by the continuous theft and vandalism of infrastructure which disrupts services. He added that this was not the only issue, adding that capacity is also a problem in the province.

In an effort to improve water-supply efficiency in the region, the minister of water and sanitation, Senzo Mchunu, sought to merge the Umgeni and Mhlathuze water boards. However, the two boards are embroiled in corruption allegations concerning serious maladministration as well as improper and unlawful conduct.

Mchunu said he had consulted with water-service authorities in KwaZulu-Natal regarding the reconfiguration of the Umgeni and Mhlathuze water boards into a single body.

Mayors from all over the region attended a consultation in Durban at the end of August, where they agreed on merging the two water boards to efficiently deal with the long-standing problems.

Mchunu is convinced that restructuring the water boards will ensure that authorities will meet the rising demands in the province. It would also ensure that quality and skilled engineers will be working with one water board.

“The single water board needs to have the capacity to sustain itself with financial muscle, where it can raise money to render services on its own. The reality is that the expenditure to implement projects is too high, the demand of services is also too high; however, the delivery by government institutions is too low and we need to fix this as a matter of urgency. The reconfiguration of water boards is a result of the national water and sanitation summit that we held earlier this year and is part of the resolutions we are implementing,” he said.

According to Mchunu, the reconfiguration of the water boards would ensure transformation and improved governance. It was crucial that the reconfiguration should not result in job losses, he emphasised. 

Is a single water board enough to deal with the problems?

Overall, the aim of a single water board is to address transformation but, most importantly, it must increase water access to unserviced rural areas in KwaZulu-Natal. The road ahead is still a long one but this is the first step to what will hopefully be adequate access to water for 11.3 million people and 2.9 million households.

The spokesperson for the department of water and sanitation, Sputnik Ratau, told the Mail & Guardian that “the minister mentioned in his budget speech that part of the work of the department is to relook at how the water boards are operating now and how they will be able to better serve the population going forward”. 

Ratau met with water service authorities in KwaZulu-Natal a few weeks ago to discuss the idea, “but we still need to work out the modalities. Having one water board to serve the whole province may be one of the best ways to serve the people”. 

SAHRC hearings into water access

The SAHRC held an inquiry into the issues of water access. The purpose of the inquiry was to look at the challenges the region is facing.

Professor Peter Ochalla of ADURO Holdings opened the inquiry with a presentation about the state of water access. He said the water issues in the region had less to do with the floods or other issues. He believes that the water problems are due to human error more than anything else.

Speaking at the inquiry, Sanele Moltshwa, a resident from Ntuzuma Section B, said community members in rural areas were afraid to speak out about water challenges.

“I’m nervous because I do not know what this might lead to. I don’t know if I’ve upset people who have power, because that’s basically what happens when you come from our neighbourhoods or townships. A high level of intimidation exists out there, so people are afraid to speak,” Moltshwa said.

The water situation in the region is serious with residents of Tongaat being without water for more than four months. The Tongaat Civic Association (TCA) has been in a battle with the eThekwini municipality, Umgeni and the provincial department of water and sanitation to have their supply restored. Charles Chetty from the TCA testified at the commission that the municipality ignored the community’s warning that local dams and reservoirs were overflowing and that urgent action was needed during the floods. The lack of action has resulted in the community being without potable water since the floods. 

“We’ve lost lives, we’ve lost people, we’ve lost property. They did nothing. All they did was to [think] how money was going to be made,” Chetty  said.

Also speaking at the inquiry, Msweli said: “The city is researching and implementing innovative ways to provide access to water and sanitation in rural areas. For example, on-site sanitation (pit toilets) is the standard for rural areas. The city is piloting [projects] and will soon commence full-scale implementation of alternative sanitation infrastructure, such as flushing toilets.”

Corruption at the centre 

Addressing the SAHRC hearings into water access in KwaZulu-Natal, eThekwini deputy mayor Philani Mavundla said the municipality does not have R20-billion to fix the water problems in the province. 

This leaves more questions than answers concerning the budget that has been allocated to fix and maintain the water infrastructure in KwaZulu-Natal, and how the money will be used. 

As we previously reported, Umgeni, which is one of the largest water boards in the country and serves municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of the Eastern Cape, has been embroiled in allegations of corruption and mismanagement for nearly a decade.  

Early this year, the Special Investigating Unit wrapped up a probe into corruption involving more than R1-billion at Umgeni. The unit has referred some of the cases to several security agencies as well as the National Prosecuting Authority for further action.  

Meanwhile, on 29 August, director-general of the KwaZulu-Natal’s premiers’ office, Nonhlanhla Mkhize, was arrested on charges of defeating the ends of justice and intimidation for allegedly threatening Mhlathuze chairperson to halt an investigation into financial irregularities. Mkhize and her co-accused, including Mhlathuze’s chief executive Mthokozisi Duze, face charges of intimidation defeating the ends of justice. Mkhize has been granted bail while the co-accused will remain behind bars.

Suspended Mhlathuze chief financial officer Babongile Mnyandu and Thabiso Khumalo were arrested on Monday and released on Tuesday on R6 000 and R60 000 bail, respectively.  

They are expected to appear before the Durban specialised crime court on 6 December.  

Hawks spokesperson, Thandi Mbambo, said in a statement that investigations brought to light that some senior officials are implicated in tender irregularities that amounted to R37-million at Mhlathuze.

“Following the investigation and compilation of the forensic report, the chairperson of the Mhlathuze water board allegedly received a visit from an unknown person at her home claiming to be from the national intelligence agency and that he was sent by the senior manager in the premier’s office. The alleged individual threatened the chairperson with arrest and demanded the forensic report. He further insisted that the complainant must stop the investigation,” Mbambo said. 

It was later confirmed that the individual was not from the agency. 

As the case is ongoing, there is no quick fix in the pipeline for the people in Kwa-Zulu Natal.