/ 2 April 2024

Our water crisis is and has always been about political will

Gauteng residents that ran out of water collected the precious fluid from a tanker this week.
Gauteng residents collecting water from a tanker. File photo

The biggest unknown in South Africa’s upcoming general elections will be how our water crisis impacts voting patterns.

We learned in the 2021 local government election that our regular and scheduled but sometimes week-long unplanned power blackouts, euphemistically referred to as load-shedding, were a major issue.

The ANC bled votes across the country. The government, of course, blamed the stage six load-shedding that enveloped the country that fateful election weekend on sabotage.

We have since learnt that the claim of sabotage may have been incorrect, with regular bouts of stage six having occurred since.

In Gauteng, the single biggest issue right now is scarcity of water. In KwaZulu-Natal, it is both water scarcity and the pollution of river systems, and in the Western Cape, a water crisis is never far away.

In addition, water-related violence has erupted in all three provinces.

These are our three most populous provinces, accounting for 56% of the total population. They are also the most highly contestable provinces for the May 29 elections, polls suggest.

Therefore, a trigger point like water will be a campaigning issue. Earlier this month, while I sat in a Department of Water and Sanitation KZN Water Services Summit hosted in Durban, a colleague reminded me about how the situation of no water, polluted water and water-related violence was predicted in 2008, and the government scientist who made the predication was summarily fired.

He was referring to water scientist Dr Anthony Turton, who was then employed by the government-funded Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), who was expected to deliver a paper at a water quality summit titled: “Three strategic water quality challenges that parliamentarians need to know about.”

He was barred from presenting the paper. Turton’s report summarised the problem South Africa faced around water quality, and therefore security, into what he called “three drivers”, namely dilution capacity, spatial development patterns and historical legacy.

Today’s opinion pages across a multitude of publications are filled with many of the statements contained in Turton’s then-controversial report. At the time, however, the ANC-led government ostensibly thought it was doing a good job with our water resources, and thus statements such as Turton’s could be seen as undermining party leadership.

That was never said publicly, but in hindsight it is clear there was pressure from above.

Dilution capacity simply means we do not have enough excess water in the water system to naturally dilute our water sources.

Turton said all pollutants and effluent streams will “increasingly need to be treated to ever higher standards before being discharged into communal waters or deposited in landfills”.

His reference to spatial development patterns, singling out Gauteng cities, noted that none of them were built near adequate water resources, creating an environment for scarcity unless capacity was created.

The last driver of historical legacy spoke to the country’s violent past and how this should be seen as a warning that future bouts of violence around water-related issues are likely.

Turton was right. He may not have been the only one who made the projections, but his public firing makes his position the most well-known.

We are living the “three drivers” right now. Fast-forward to the water summit I attended recently, and the evidence placed on the projector screen by water officials clearly showed that almost every single municipality in the country is facing some form of water services collapse, from bulk water reticulation to wastewater treatment.

And there, in the summit, water services general manager after water services government official stood up and told us about the dire situations they face.

Here again were our top officials, much like Turton nearly two decades ago, waving the red flag.

Of greater concern was that every single municipality had clear and defined opportunities to arrest the decline but, in most cases, chose not to until it was too late.

The problem was, has been, and always will be, a political one.

And unless there is a will beyond the election cycle, the problems we face today will not be resolved. We have seen this before, and we have mostly been let down.

The problem any future government faces is that unless it makes water security an apex issue, the governing party will always be held accountable for its scarcity and the ramifications that follow.

Load-shedding will always be equated with the ANC.

If South Africa wants to be a true global political power, as our current government says it is striving for, then it needs to focus on getting our fundamental basic right of water secured.

It’s a political decision. Finish and klaar.

Jonathan Erasmus is a project manager at Outa, the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse. He writes in his personal capacity.