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South Africa's Water Crisis - Is there a way out?

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The cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal is a symptom of the looming water crisis in South Africa. Droughts in the Eastern Cape and Western Cape and the widespread failure of the sanitation systems in KwaZulu-Natal and other provinces raise concerns regarding sustainable water supply and sanitation management in South Africa. In 2013, it was reported by the Water Research Commission (WRC) that almost 40% of water in municipalities is lost due to leaks. The persistent loadshedding affecting water pumping stations and their ability to distribute water properly exacerbates the water challenges that have resulted in water shedding in certain areas, especially Gauteng. The impact is most felt by people with low incomes, in critical services such as hospitals and clinics, and in rural areas.


Chapter 7 of the South African Constitution states that municipalities should prioritize providing services to satisfy all citizens' basic needs, including water supply, refuse removal, electricity and gas supply, among other services. Still, there seems to be a lack of political will and action to fulfil this constitutional mandate. Over two-thirds of the 257 municipalities are water service authorities. As is, 151 municipalities in South Africa are close to collapse, with 43 having already collapsed, requiring immediate intervention.


The situation is dire, considering more than 80% of wastewater treatment systems are in a critical state such that people in several areas do not have access to potable water which is safe for drinking and cooking. South Africa faces water scarcity, yet more than 90% of the treatment plants release raw or partially treated sewage directly into the country's water sources. The Vaal River, for example, has been reported to be polluted beyond acceptable levels by the South African Human Rights Commission. The water quality score is "tolerable" regarding microbiology standards and "unacceptable" by operational standards. This indicates inefficiency in the operation of treatment systems and infrastructure. The dysfunctional and non-compliant wastewater treatment works resulting in sewage pollution are at the root of the cholera crisis in South Africa.


While tap water offsite or onsite is common in the Western Cape (99.4%), and Gauteng (98.4%), several households in Limpopo (30.6%) and the Eastern Cape (29.4%) do not have access to tap water and access in both provinces has been declining since 2014. Access to improved sanitation is also limited in Limpopo (58.5%) and Mpumalanga (63.2%).


Residents of the Western Cape and Gauteng provinces might view flush toilets as the norm, but 74% of households in Limpopo still use pit latrines, and most of those pit latrines do not have ventilation. According to Statistics South Africa, more than a third of households in Mpumalanga and 20.5% of households in North West use pit latrines without ventilation pipes. Regarding refuse removal in South Africa, only 62.9% of households reported refusal removal once every week or less often. With the outbreak being in Gauteng, where the indicators are much better, what lies ahead for the other provinces with inadequate water and sanitation?


There is a myriad of interconnected reasons why municipalities are struggling to deliver on their constitutional mandate, including lack of maintenance of basic infrastructure, lack of critical skills, lack of implementation and enforcement of existing legislation and policy and lack of accountability.


Municipalities tend to struggle to attract essential personnel, particularly those with technical knowledge, skill and expertise in engineering, planning and project management, to provide basic services and address the challenges faced. This is due to, amongst other reasons, non-competitive remuneration, the culture of non-performance in municipalities and reported toxic work environments in some municipalities.


Municipal finances are in a dire state partly due to wasteful expenditure, which runs in the billions and because of the decline in the number of households that pay for their piped water. Year after year, several municipalities receive poor financial audits because of governance and accountability issues in local government. According to the Auditor General, for the financial period 2021/22, financial mismanagement included 268 material irregularities for services that were paid for but not received.


Is there a way out of this crisis? Definitely! Water is the most basic of human rights; therefore, it should be given budget priority so that the necessary investment in infrastructure maintenance and rehabilitation for providing potable water and sanitation services can be made. Municipal authorities can ring-fence water income to provide more infrastructure maintenance and replacement funds. There is a need to increase the country’s water capacity given the country has major users like mining.


According to the Municipal Systems Act, every water services authority should have an updated water services development plan (WSDP) which maps out the municipality's plan for providing water services to all its consumers. These plans must be implemented. The government should also frequently test drinking water from all sources and be transparent about the findings.


The government should implement technology that can locate leaks and fix them. Smart water meters in households can also alert consumers if a leak occurs so that no water is wasted. Measures such as critical skill allowances, succession plans, retention policies, and headhunting should be implemented to attract the essential personnel to address the water challenges.


Most importantly, if the government should outsource services, let there be stringent measures to mitigate corruption and ensure the most qualified firms are awarded the tender, backed by a solid monitoring and evaluation plan and a skills transfer plan.


What can you do as a citizen? Reduce your water consumption where possible. Participate in the integrated development plan (IDP) consultations for your municipality. Ask the officials in your municipality about the state of your water, if a WSDP exists and what they are doing to implement it. You must hold the local government officials accountable; otherwise, you might end up paying handsomely to access what should be a public service once it is in the hands of the private sector.

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