South Africa is a water scarce country, and with an ever-rising population, developmental demands and concentration of population in urban areas, there is an ever-growing pressure on water resources requiring a robust water demand management system.
Water demand, whether by a household, industry or agriculture, is generally inelastic. This means changes in price of water or income of consumers does not change their demand for water, at least to a great degree. The level at which water demand responds to price or income happens very slowly and the change itself is very minimal.
Given this inelasticity of water demand, water management and the control of consumption becomes almost entirely the responsibility of government. In South Africa, the provisioning of water is a core responsibility of local governments. Water management therefore requires a strong and capable local government to ensure that proper controls, distribution and saving of water is adhered to without compromising development and livelihoods. It is the responsibility of local government to ensure the water demands are met and that water resources are preserved.
As with other fundamental problems in our country, at the core of them is a weak and dysfunctional local
government. The lack of capable local government has resulted in failing service delivery of water services to many residents of municipalities, causing political unrest and environmental degradation. The issue of institutional capacity and human capital in local government institutions has implications on the entire government’s ability to deliver safe and secure water resources to residents.
There are four critical areas that ensure a municipality is able to sufficiently and consistently provide water and sanitation to its residents. Infrastructure delivery and its maintenance, financial health, and technical capacity are the criteria that the municipal infrastructure support agent (MISA) – an agent mandated in terms of the operational notice issued by the Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs minister in July 2013 – to render technical advice and support to municipalities, which was used in their assessment of Eastern Cape water services authorities in August 2020.
The MISA report has been frank and scathing on the performance of Eastern Cape municipalities as water service authorities in providing water to communities. Almost all infrastructure delivery of water and sanitation in the Eastern Cape is either at risk or completely dysfunctional. From the Alfred Nzo and Joe Gqabi municipalities, to Makana and Sundays River, there is generally very poor infrastructure delivery.
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MISA also reported that almost all water infrastructure maintenance is dysfunctional. In the last five years, most municipalities in Eastern Cape have not spent more than 1% of its budget on water infrastructure maintenance. In fact some have spent 0.0% on maintenance. Eastern Cape, therefore, has the lowest expenditure on repairs and maintenance in South Africa. Eastern Cape has the second-lowest overall municipal infrastructure quality index – only Limpopo was lower. The immediate consequence of that is non-revenue water in the country, as a result of water leaks, amounting to R9.9 billion.
The issue of water infrastructure delivery and maintenance is at the core of water challenges in the Eastern Cape. This means the reach is limited and concentrated, with communities that still remain without access to water infrastructure. It also means the current infrastructure, old and new, deteriorates quickly because of lack of care and maintenance. This is money down the drain if it isn’t maintained.
The other core challenge of most Eastern Cape municipalities is financial management and control. There is widespread lack of financial controls and project monitoring in most Eastern Cape municipalities. Only three district municipalities’ financial health can be deemed functional. Technical capacity of all these municipalities is either at risk or dysfunctional. This explains the lack of infrastructure maintenance. These municipalities have no technical capacity to be good custodians for the water infrastructure entrusted in their care.
Eastern Cape has 150 wastewater treatment works and of these, 74 are considered non-compliant. That means 49% of these works are considered dysfunctional. The Chris Hani district municipality, as well as OR Tambo and Sundays River Valley local municipalities, have the highest percentages of waste water treatment works that are dysfunctional. This means a huge capacity of removing contaminates from sewage into an effluent that can be returned into the water cycle does not exist.
This explains the ever-growing lack of access to water and sanitation in Eastern Cape, with a backlog of 24.9%. Nine municipalities in Eastern Cape have a backlog of more than 40%.
The worst culprit of all the Eastern Cape municipalities has been the Sarah Baartman municipality, comprising of seven local municipalities. One of the local municipalities, Makana, has had drying dams, lack of water dam transfers, lack of access to water by some communities, and very poor maintenance. Same is true of other local municipalities, with Sunday River Valley local municipality even experiencing a death of a child in one of its irrigation canals, and ongoing water leaks. Municipalities like Beyers Naude have reached 0% dam levels, a catastrophe that is years in the making. Nelson Mandela Bay is the seat of the Sarah Baartman district municipality, and although its not part of it as a metro, it’s not been spared of the devastating consequences of water mismanagement.
Recommendations to the Eastern Cape municipalities are very clear. Water use efficiency targets need to be set and made part of KPIs for municipal management. The idea that municipal management can sit back and watch their water infrastructure disintegrate, spend 0% on infrastructure maintenance, and embark on poorly executed and inadequate water projects without consequence can no longer be tolerated. At a provincial level, municipalities’ intervention units must be established to monitor and intervene in these water challenges at municipality levels.
There also needs to be a restricting of grant funding mechanisms and conditions for water and sanitation. There is a need to understand how the current funding model contributes to service delivery problems. National Government cannot continue to pour money into non-compliant municipalities without any conditions and deliverables as conditions for continued employment of these municipal managers.
There has to be consequences. There must be an establishment of mechanisms for applying administrative penalties. Poor performance is destroying communities and crippling development.
Most importantly, municipalities must establish partnerships with the private sector to unlock investments and open other localisation barriers to reposition water management in municipalities.
For national government, an improvement in monitoring and evaluation, with respect to indicators and consequences for poor performance, and interventions are non-negotiable.
Our communities deserve the best water management system.
Yonela Diko is the spokesperson to the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, Lindiwe Sisulu. You can follow him on Twitter on @yonela_diko.