Picture: Oupa Mokoena/ African News Agency (ANA) Archives – In Tshwane a number of pylons fell down and high voltage cables blocked the N4 freeway, resulting in a significant portion of the city being without electricity.
By Michael Sutcliffe and Sue Bannister
Hardly a week goes by without a report on possible vandalism occurring on critical infrastructure. Recently, in Tshwane a number of pylons fell down and high voltage cables blocked the N4 freeway, resulting in a significant portion of the city being without electricity. In cases like this, there is a tendency to think that it is because of ageing infrastructure, poor maintenance, load shedding and vandalism.
Whilst some of these elements play a role, we need also to understand the complex challenges and choices we have faced, and still face, as a country. But some of these arguments are too general, such as using a term like ageing infrastructure in general, given that engineering infrastructure is usually built to have a useful life of 20-80 years.
Let’s start by noting examples of the sheer scale of infrastructure that we currently have in place. In terms of energy, we have over 200 key sites generating energy. To bring this energy supply to where demand is, we have over 28 000 km of high voltage lines that transport electricity to municipalities. At the distribution level, from medium voltage distribution to over 3 000 sub stations, we have over 325 000km of lower-voltage lines that distribute electricity to homes and businesses, with reticulation from sub-stations. eThekwini alone has 113 major voltage and 12 449 medium voltage substations serving its 743 000 customers.
Managing this generation, transmission and distribution of electricity is not easy. Apartheid’s spatial patterns are still reflected in our population distribution, with many people of African origin still living far from economic opportunity. Population growth is also uneven with some areas declining and others growing rapidly. Gauteng, Cape Town and other economic centres had a 40% increase in the number of households in the 2001-2011 period.
A similar situation exists when we look at the distribution of water and sanitation and we are a water-stressed country. In the case of water, the government manages over 500 dams which collectively have a capacity of 37 000 million cubic metres of water. However, only 8% of the land contributes over 50% of the water, and there is not an even distribution across South Africa. As you move to a municipal level, a city like Johannesburg has a water distribution network of 12 581km, with 115 reservoirs and water towers, and 35 water pump stations. However, because of changing demand and infrastructural challenges, Gauteng is experiencing major water shortages and intermittent supply, even though dams may be full. eThekwini has over 155 000 manholes which cover the stormwater system.
In the case of roads, South Africa’s total road network is estimated at 750 000km. Whilst the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) manages national roads and has a network of over 22 000km of paved roads, provinces are responsible for around 223 000km and the municipal network is estimated at almost 280 000km, with a city like eThekwini having over 8 000km of roads to maintain. The remaining unproclaimed gravel roads (mainly serving rural communities) are not owned or maintained by any road authority.
Again we have significant differences in densities of people and vehicles on roads, but the reality remains that in the Eastern Cape only around 10% of the roads are paved compared with over 75% of the roads being paved in Gauteng. At the same time, given that Gauteng and the Western Cape have the highest densities on their roads, they need frequent maintenance.
Overall, we continue to experience an imbalance in demand and supply of the basic network services and this is likely to continue for decades to come. This is the result of providing more access to basic network services for those without, increased economic growth and the significant change in human settlement patterns we have experienced. The demand for infrastructure is growing more rapidly than the supply.
For example, Water Treatment Works may take 10-15 years to be constructed, whilst the demand for that water can happen within a year or two. The necessary condition, therefore, for achieving our constitutional duty is to continue the path of providing access to basic network infrastructure equitably for all South Africans and the economy.
We will only achieve sufficient conditions when we address the following, none of which are unique to South Africa:
Maintaining and rehabilitating infrastructure: Current levels of maintenance and rehabilitation are too low. In municipalities 2-3% of infrastructure expenditure is spent on maintenance – far lower than the required level of 13%. However, it is also difficult to prioritise maintenance when many people still do not have access to services.
Decide on servicing levels: In many parts of the world where there are such high levels of inequality, it makes sense to reduce the levels of services that people currently receive to increase the levels of servicing that particularly the poor receive. For example, estimates suggest that water consumption in Gauteng per person per day is over 300 litres, well above the global average of 173 litres. A recent study in Cape Town found the richest people used 50 times more water than the poorest. When the Day Zero water crisis struck the city in 2018, after several years of drought, the poorest were left without enough water for their basic needs. Cape Town was far from unique, the researchers said, with similar problems in many cities around the world, including Miami, Melbourne, London, Barcelona, São Paulo, Beijing, Bengaluru and Harare.
Develop and implement strategies which reduce non-revenue water and electricity (that is, water and electricity losses). In the case of non-revenue water, where old infrastructure is in place, reductions in water pressure can reduce leaks, whilst infrastructure is rehabilitated or replaced. Action plans must be in place to stop leaks and stop the organised theft of water and electricity.
Involve communities much more in assisting with the stopping of vandalism and criminal actions: Although this remains a worldwide issue, almost every week thieves are targeting substations.
Improve monitoring systems: It has become clear that both vandalism, corrosion, and also the changes in weather patterns are having major effects on particularly pylons. It is impossible to deploy enough security to manage the scale of the infrastructure, where already billions are being spent on security. An intensive campaign should be implemented using Ward Committees to get community assistance in reporting and monitoring the state of this infrastructure. This is particularly important in areas of higher densities and with high levels of poverty/crime.
Corruption must be addressed decisively, as the Zondo Commission indicates.
Find ways to significantly inject funds into infrastructure: This is not an easy issue, as in water alone, in 2015, the Department of Water and Sanitation said it would require R293 billion to fix and upgrade all water and sewage infrastructure in the country.
Focus on building resilient infrastructure: The April 2022 floods in KZN resulted in almost R17bn damage, and when coupled with the civil unrest and looting in July 2021 an additional more than R25bn worth of infrastructure was damaged. All building back infrastructure must focus on the need for resilience.
Overall, power, water, sanitation and stormwater installations should be treated as high-security infrastructure as their destruction can have far-reaching implications for security as well as crucial services such as businesses, hospitals, airports and sensitive industries. Everything possible must be done to mitigate the fact that supply of infrastructure is being outstripped by demand, and is further affected by issues of vandalism, criminality and corruption.
* Michael Sutcliffe and Sue Bannister are Directors at City Insight (Pty) Ltd.