Menu Close

Incompetence, graft, key drivers of water crisis

Add to my bookmarks

Share This Article:

Water spurts from a broken pipe on South Coast Road in Mobeni, Durban, this week. Across our country, hardly a day goes by without reports of corruption, incompetence, the construction mafia, unprotected strikes and poor management of the procurement processes, say the writers. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo / Independent Newspapers / March 14, 2024

By Michael Sutcliffe and Sue Bannister

“Water bubbles up in streets, pooling in neighbourhoods for weeks or months. Homes burn to the ground if firefighters can’t draw enough water from hydrants. Utility crews struggle to fix broken pipes while water flows through shut-off valves that don’t work.”

This certainly sounds like one of our cities, but it is from an article published a few weeks ago documenting that, across many cities in the United States, more than 60 percent (many trillions of litres) of the potable water is being lost through leaks and wastage, leaving communities, literally, dry and very frustrated. It is no longer only the poor who have no access to basic services like water and sanitation, everyone is now affected.

The reality in South Africa is no different. It has become the new norm where in our metropolitan areas – 16 percent of households have inadequate access to food and 12 percent of households experienced water outages for more than 15 days in the past financial year.

Nationally, 75 of our most financially distressed municipalities cannot afford to pay for their bulk water supply. This reality must change.

South Africa faces major challenges of water scarcity due to physical limits – low average rainfall; hot climate; poor management and maintenance, and inefficient use.

We already have a water deficit which is growing and will be between 2.7 and 3.8 billion cubic metres, a gap of approximately 17 percent, by 2030.

Of course, some of this is due to the fact that we are overcoming the reality created by apartheid where black South Africans were deprived of access to water, a situation which has changed dramatically over the past 20 years.

The censuses show this clearly:

  • In 1996, almost 20 percent of households had no access to piped water, but by 2022, this figure had been reduced to under 9 percent.
  • In 1996, about 60 percent of households had access to piped water inside their homes or yards and today that figure is over 80 percent.

At the same time, on average, domestic consumption of water is more than 60 litres a person per day higher than global benchmarks. Much of this is due to leakages and losses, but it demonstrates the need for households with easy access to water to make a real effort to reduce consumption.

The lack of maintenance and renewal of infrastructure has been a major factor behind many of the water outages.

Of the R128 billion spent on capital by municipalities in the 2021/22 financial year, about 30 percent (R57bn) has been spent on water and sanitation-related infrastructure.

However, only 3 percent of this was spent on repairs and maintenance. This figure should be at least between 7 percent and 10 percent.

Herein lies the first serious problem:

  • we are failing to repair and maintain what we have. However, it is also important to recognise that
  • maintenance and repairs may also cause significant disruptions of water supply. The lack of maintenance is also compounded by managerial failures in many municipalities.

In eThekwini, the auditor-general used examples in the municipality to highlight fraud and corruption, poor performance targeting, the lack of complete or accurate information, non-achievement of targets and poor commissioning of projects. Her report also highlighted that:

  • Wastewater discharges at treatment works did not comply with standards and reasonable measures were not taken to prevent pollution or degradation.
  • Officials did not update disaster management plans.
  • There was a lack of co-ordination between custodians of infrastructure: For example, the Tongaat water treatment was fixed but the bulk supply lines were not ready, so there were further delays.

There can be no excuses when a city like eThekwini, which has relatively good technical capacity – more than 150 engineers, technologists and technicians – still faces these challenges. Issues include a lack of succession planning and management and the need to urgently fill posts in key areas like water and sanitation planning, asset management and water and waste-water design.

These professionals also need to be empowered to do their jobs without being frustrated through slow and sometimes corrupt processes in appointments, supply chain and procurement. At the same time, managers must manage and all must be held to account if they do not do their jobs properly.

Across our country, hardly a day goes by without reports of corruption, incompetence, the construction mafia, unprotected strikes and poor management of the procurement processes. And, when municipal and trade union leadership are shunned by workers going on unprotected strikes, there should be no other option but to follow due processes and fire such staff who are nothing more than saboteurs.

These issues reflect poorly on the leadership and management at a municipal level and must be urgently and decisively resolved, with consequent action being publicised. This includes prioritising and increasing maintenance, improving asset management, addressing the non-revenue water, improving situations where there is intermittent supply, implementing turnaround strategies, enforcing by-laws and credit control measures, taking action against unregulated services being provided, and ensuring far more transparency and responsiveness.

Governmental and societal leadership must work together to decisively address the multi-dimensional and complex root causes of the current challenges.

Michael Sutcliffe and Sue Bannister are directors of City Insight