SA water crisis:  “A massive avalanche” ANC govt can’t stem…

The water crisis in South Africa is “like a massive avalanche that is coming down the mountain”.  So says John Endres of the Centre for Risk Analysis. And he warns: “…I do not think that the government at the moment has a way to stem the avalanche”. Endres thinks that the current “urgency” being displayed by the government is “temporary” – and “a reflection of electoral panic”. He discusses concerns that water might become a national security issue ahead of the election. “…it’s also relatively easy to disrupt…fiddling with the infrastructure, creating a bit of vandalism, creating a bit of chaos…” Endres says if the African National Congress (ANC) remains in charge after the election, “it needs a change of heart and…a bringing in of the private sector on honest and equitable terms rather than using it as a method of propping up the support levels in the elections”.

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Summary of the interview between John Endres and Chris Steyn

In this interview, John Endres discusses the growing threat of water scarcity to South Africa’s stability and security. He highlights a report from the government’s security cluster indicating water as a potential security issue, especially leading up to elections. Endres expresses scepticism about the government’s ability to effectively address the crisis, citing past failures in addressing similar issues like electricity shortages.

He outlines three major challenges in the water sector: supply interruptions, poor water quality, and inadequate wastewater treatment. Endres criticizes government policies, such as cadre deployment and preferential procurement, for exacerbating the crisis. He suggests involving the private sector but emphasizes the need for fundamental policy changes within the ruling ANC.

Endres notes the migration of people to areas with better service delivery, highlighting the effectiveness of decentralisation. He underscores the urgent need for action but expresses pessimism about the timeline for resolution unless there’s a fundamental change in approach or governance. Ultimately, he suggests that positive change could come from either a shift within the ANC or a change in government.

Extended transcript of the interview ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Chris Steyn (00:01.284)

Is the lack of water threatening South Africa’s national security? We speak to John Endres of the Centre for Risk Analysis. Welcome, John.

John Endres (00:12.206)

Thank you very much. Thanks for having me on.

Chris Steyn (00:13.764)

John, do you think the lack of reliable water supply is becoming a threat to stability in South Africa?

John Endres (00:22.894)

Well, certainly the government seems to think so. So we saw a report, not naming who was speaking about it, but out of the security cluster of the government, suggesting that ahead of the elections, water might become a security relevant issue. And the notion here, I think, is that the water supply is something that is, of course, very urgent for people to have. It’s essential for life. And it’s also relatively easy to disrupt. So in other words, you know, fiddling with the infrastructure, creating a bit of vandalism, creating a bit of chaos, is actually quite easy to do. And I think that is why the security cluster is concerned about water as an issue, especially now ahead of the elections.

Chris Steyn (01:05.956)

But what do you make of government’s assurances that this is a temporary issue and that it is being effectively addressed? Are you seeing it being effectively addressed?

John Endres (01:17.358)

I have zero confidence in the government. We know that there’s a high level ministerial task team that has been appointed now under the leadership of Paul Mashatile, the deputy president, who assures us that steps are being taken, measures are being implemented, etc., etc. But we’ve heard this all before. If you think about electricity, the famous war room, Eskom war room, there’ve been an infinite number of task teams trying to sort out load shedding, and with very little effect. We had one and a half decades of load shedding. And with water, I think it is a much more slowly moving crisis. It’s like a massive avalanche that is coming down the mountain. And I do not think that the government at the moment has a way to stem the avalanche. And it is also not diagnosing the problems correctly. And that is why I think that the current measures will not be successful.

Chris Steyn (02:10.052)

Please recap for us the state of the quality of water and the supply in South Africa at the moment.

John Endres (02:19.566)

So we’re facing quite a lot of challenges on the water supply arena at the moment. The Department of Water put out three reports last year called the No Water Report, the Blue Water Report and the Green Water Report. And I must commend the authors on the good job they did in those reports. You know, so as is so often the case in South Africa, we’ve got a fairly good idea of what’s going on. This is true in the area of corruption. If you think of the Zondo Commission, for example, got good insight into who was involved and what they did and where money was misappropriated. We were not so good as actually doing something about it. And I think this is going to be the same story with the water situation as well. To name some of the issues, water interruption, so supply interruptions are a major concern. That is something that the No Water Report dealt with. And it is a feature of life that many South Africans have been living with for many years already, which is to be without water for a day or a week or a month or several months. And this crisis is now coming to the big cities, to the metros. And that is, of course, where the most of South Africans live. And so they are becoming very agitated about this. If you think about the water interruption in Johannesburg, which we experienced three weeks ago or thereabouts, that really got people very upset. And it happened at the same time as the city of Johannesburg was announcing its rates increases and its water price increases. And residents here are really asking themselves what they are paying for, that effectively they’re paying first world rates for third world services and that they are not really willing to put up with that. Very unhappy about that. Then the second issue is the Blue Water area, which is drinking water. Here the problem is that much of the drinking water is not as clean as it should be. So you might open your tap and water comes out or doesn’t. But when it comes out, often it is not of good quality and can even harm your health, as we saw in Hammanskraal, when I think over 20 people died as a result of Cholera, which is a consequence of water that is not properly cleaned. And the third area is the Green Drop Report. So in our area here, Bryanfern Residence Association has launched a media campaign to try to get one specific sewage leak fixed in the local spruit. But of course, this is happening all over. All over the place, the wastewater plants aren’t working properly. The water that they are releasing into the rivers, into the environment is not properly purified. It’s not treated up to the right standard. And as a result, it creates a risk to the health of South Africans and really creates a water emergency. And if I may just add the observation that water resources in South Africa were nationalised around 1998 with the very noble intention of placing water resources under the custodianship of the State, and the notion is that the State is best placed to take good care of water and ensure that people have clean water. And as we see, this curatorship of the State is a terrible disaster for the supply of water and for the quality of water. So we should be, throughout all areas of life in South Africa, very skeptical of any attempts by the government to expropriate, to nationalise, to place under custodianship resources which has shown itself to be incapable of managing professionally.

Chris Steyn (05:55.173)

How do you think this crisis can be resolved? Privatising water again?

John Endres (06:01.646)

So, well, you need to get the private sector in. I think that is true. But when you look at the reasons given by the water department and also by Deputy President Paul Mashatile for the water crisis, the sort of first order reasons are properly identified. So they say the municipalities aren’t spending money well, we don’t have the right skills, municipalities are not paying the water boards for money. They owe, I think, 14 billion rand to the water boards. So there’s like a whole series of things that are going wrong. But what they fail to do is do the root cause analysis of this to ask why are the municipalities failing? Why are the water boards not doing their jobs properly? And to answer that question, you have to look at some very fundamental aspects of government policy relating, for example, to procurement policies, and also to employment and staffing policies.

Cadre deployment is one reason why we’ve got the water problems that we’ve got at the moment. Preferential procurement on a race basis rather than a value for money basis is another reason why we’ve got a water crisis at the moment. And finally, employment practices that prioritise a person’s race or gender above their competence are a third reason we’ve got these problems. So to solve them, those areas have to be addressed. But all of those areas are deeply embedded in the identity and vision of the ANC as the ruling party. And that is why it is so hard to move away from these things. But that is what needs to happen to fix the problem.

Chris Steyn (07:41.508)

Now, in the meantime, people are migrating from municipal areas where there is a lack of service delivery or poor service delivery to areas where they perceive there to be such service delivery. What, what, that situation, What is that going to create ultimately? Because so many people are moving down to the Western Cape.

John Endres (08:04.654)

Yes. Well, I think firstly, it’s very good that we have a situation where we can see competing approaches to administration playing out and we can observe the effects. So that’s an argument against centralisation, which is another shibboleth of the ANC that tends to want to centralise everything. But if the entire country were properly centralised, then governance in the Western Cape would be as bad as it is in the rest of the country. So the fact that we have, you know, some aspects of decentralisation is really fantastic. To give you one example here, currently South Africa’s non-revenue water losses are at 47 percent. Non-revenue water is water that gets supplied in the system, but that doesn’t get paid for. That can be because there are leaks in the pipes, for example. It can be because water is being stolen. It can be because water has been given away as part of the free water allowance. But put together, it means that the entities supplying water in South Africa are supplying half of their product without payment. So imagine Checkers doing this or Woolworths supermarket saying, you know, of all the, of all the goods we have on our shelves, we know that half of those, we’re not going to get paid for. How long would those organisations last? So the money problem is very, very urgent. And here we see that in the Western Cape, I think the non-revenue water loss rate is only about 29%. So a huge difference.

The international standard is about to try to be under 30%. So the Western Cape is reaching that. They’re getting right on the benchmark. And I’m sure they’re trying to improve further, but the rest of the country is not. And we see this non-revenue water creeping up further and further, and more and more money is being lost as a result of that. And the consequence of that, of course, is that money needed to fix the infrastructure and address the things that are breaking down is not available because revenue is not being collected.

Chris Steyn (10:02.372)

If measures were put in place right away, there’s such a backlog, what timeline are we looking at to address this crisis?

John Endres (10:13.71)

Um, it really depends on what you do, what your actions are. And my sense is that based on the actions pursued by the government at the moment, this is not going to be resolved anytime soon. And that is because the underlying causes are not being addressed. Um, if you think of that really big water project in Giyani, for example, that has consumed billions of rands and did not deliver water to the people of the area. Or if you think of the Lesotho Highlands water project, which is meant to increase supply to Gauteng amongst other places, is nine years behind schedule. And it’s just not being pursued with the urgency that is required. I also think that the current urgency that is being displayed by the government is temporary. It is I think a reflection of electoral panic ahead of the 29 May elections. But I suspect that after the elections are passed, that sense of urgency is going to fade very quickly as the political sphere becomes preoccupied with itself rather than with administration or governance. So the timeline here I think is not looking good at the moment unless something quite fundamental changes and that will have to include a change of approach within the ANC.

Chris Steyn (11:27.62)

Or a change of government?

John Endres (11:30.958)

Yes, exactly. Whatever means a positive influence can be brought to bear upon the policy environment. That is what is required. If it is the ANC in charge, it needs a change of heart and a recognition of the importance of value for money procurement, the importance of property rights, a moving away from expropriation without compensation, a bringing in of the private sector on honest and equitable terms rather than using it as a method of propping up the support levels in the elections. That is what is required.

Chris Steyn (12:07.748)

Thank you. That was John Endres of the Center for Risk Analysis speaking to BizNews about how the lack of water is threatening South Africa’s national security. I’m Chris Steyn.

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