Picture: Bongani Shilubane/African News Agency (ANA) – Residents of Refilwe, Pretoria, Karabo Nkadimeng and Thato Choeu on their water to fetch water from tankers.
By Gwinyai Taruvinga
Reports of a widespread cholera outbreak in Tshwane have prompted debates surrounding water governance in South Africa. Over the last few years, South Africa’s water governance has come under scrutiny with communities failing to have access to potable water. In 2018 the term ‘Day Zero’ in Cape Town became synonymous with the water crisis that the country was and continues to face.
The government has proposed the creation of a new agency that will be tasked with overseeing water resources in the country. The National Water Resources Infrastructure Agency (NWRIA) will see the ownership of dams being moved from the Department of Water and Sanitation, which many view as an entity that has struggled with governing water resources in the country.
The key aim of this agency, in addition to improving water governance in the country, is to raise finances to fund water development projects. Dr Sean Phillips, who is the director-general of the water and sanitation department has noted that, as of now, funds can only be borrowed against National Treasury guarantees. The ability to raise finances, which is one of NWRIA’s mandates, will see the government being relieved of the need to raise funds to rehabilitate the country’s water infrastructure.
The creation of the NWRIA comes against the backdrop of a water crisis that has exposed the government’s inability to address the challenge amidst an array of (other) challenges such as incessant power cuts and poor infrastructure. The introduction of the NWRIA should be welcomed as it serves to address the water challenges in South Africa. With state-owned enterprises like Eskom, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), and Transnet in the spotlight for the wrong reasons, many believe that the NWRIA will suffer the same fate. Dr. Philips has allayed these concerns by noting that adequate measures have been put in place to ensure that the NWRIA will not suffer the same fate.
Poor governance has been attributed to being one of the major challenges facing state-owned institutions in South Africa. Analysts have argued that institutions like Eskom have struggled to provide services due to poor corporate governance measures and this is a reality that could be linked to the NWRIA. As seen with the electricity supply in South Africa, the water sector faces a similar challenge as poor infrastructure continues to pose serious challenges.
The government has planned to reform critical sectors in the country through Operation Vulindlela with Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana, noting that significant progress had been made towards assisting the water sector in the country.
The NWRIA was crafted through the National Water Resource Infrastructure Agency Bill and was published for public consultation with the idea that the NWRIA would enable greater investment in the country’s bulk water resources. In addition to this, there have been efforts to establish collaborations between the Department of Water and Sanitation and big business to encourage private sector participation in the management of water infrastructure.
Among the NWRIA’s mandates and functions is to manage national water resources infrastructure of both an economic and social nature, generate revenue from the sale of water as its primary source of income, develop options to increase the sources of revenue, and facilitate public-private partnership.
The current water situation in the country has seen areas like Nelson Mandela Bay facing a crisis where residents are facing water shortages due to drought, aging infrastructure and mismanagement. The introduction of NWRIA is hoped to provide solutions to such challenges that affect several other municipalities in South Africa.
In a Green Drop report published by the Department of Water and Sanitation, it was noted that 39% of municipal wastewater systems were in a critical state pointing to the need for a massive financial investment required to address the issue concerning infrastructure.
South Africa is viewed as a water-scarce country pointing to the importance of having sound water governing policies. In 1998, South Africa promulgated the National Water Act of 1998 which was viewed as a significant shift from the previous water act which was birthed during apartheid.
Concerning water management, the country roped in experts from countries like Australia, Spain, Mexico, France, and America intending to improve water management in the country. The National Water Act of 1998 was intended “to provide for fundamental reform of the law relating to water resources; to repeal certain laws…” It was further noted that the Water Act was aimed at ensuring that the country’s water resources were protected, used, developed, conserved, managed, and controlled in ways that, for example, promoted equitable access to water.
Within the context of the Water Act of 1998, there seems to be a disjuncture between the law and the lived experiences of communities around the country, thus again pointing to a failure in governance policies which is at the heart of the water challenges the country faces. The Water Act of 1998 is proof that the government had, at least in theory, realised the importance of having sound water policies that would benefit the country. South African communities have had to deal with water shortages and cholera outbreaks which show that there has been a huge disjuncture between policies and implementation.
Although the creation of the NWRIA can be viewed as a positive step in addressing the water challenges in the country, the government needs to put in place measures that the new state- owned enterprise fulfils its purpose.
*Gwinyai Taruvinga is A Post-doctoral Fellow at the Wits Humanities Graduate Centre