A looming catastrophe: SA’s water crisis

South Africa is facing a water crisis similar to its ongoing electricity crisis due to mismanagement of the water supply and neglect of its infrastructure. While electricity has been prioritized over water in terms of political significance, experts warn that water is a constitutionally enshrined human right that requires proper planning and financing. The government has neglected water infrastructure, leading to a breakdown of institutional memory and the ability of institutions to function. Political influence and corruption have also contributed to the degradation of professionalism and meritocracy in water management. To solve this crisis, South Africa needs a depoliticised state staffed by ethical and competent experts. Read more below on what a failure of water infrastructure would mean for our nation.

Water: only the excellence of outcomes matters

By Terence Corrigan

Pummelled by load shedding, South Africa’s long-suffering people have come to accept that a plentiful and reliable supply of electricity is just not available to them right now – and with this reality, to acknowledge the failing of a key foundation of modern life. 

However much gloss and optimism the government tries to put on this set of circumstances, it’s a crisis with no end in sight, compromising the country’s future with each day it grinds on. 

Think, then, of what a failure of the water infrastructure would mean. 

Recently, The Citizen ran a story about South Africa’s water crisis. It reported on the mismanagement of the water supply, threatening a situation resembling the country’s power malaise.

Experts quoted in the publication noted that water is a constitutionally enshrined human right, and recommended holding officials to account for their failures to keep the water infrastructure in good repair and the water itself flowing. This is necessary, but it will not be sufficient.

Read more: SA’s electricity and water crisis fuels inequality as affluent invest in alternative sources

For this reason, it is important to understand not just that the country’s water infrastructure has been allowed to decay, but why this has been the case.

Part of the explanation has been that water has been a low-priority matter for the government. Unlike say, crime prevention, it has not been headline-grabbing (any more than electricity before blackouts hit); its political significance was largely limited to the exposure of ‘rolling out’ access to new beneficiaries. 

Unfortunately, this meant that inadequate attention was paid to maintaining what existed – not least bulk supply infrastructure – or to the innovations that would be necessary to enhance the supply. (Renowned water scientist, Prof Anthony Turton has noted that water is actually an ‘infinitely recyclable and renewable resource’, and supply can be reconceived as a ‘paradigm of abundance’ – provided it is subject to proper planning and financing, wherein lies the proverbial rub.) 

And despite water’s relative political obscurity, it is a commodity wrapped up in political influence. In 1998, it was effectively nationalised by the National Water Act. It has thus been especially vulnerable to general pathologies in governance.

Prof Mike Muller, at one time director general of water affairs and now a visiting adjunct professor at Wits University, has described the Department of Water and Sanitation as a ‘case study of state destruction’. This was expressed through the evisceration of management as ministers changed and installed officials of their choosing. This broke down institutional memory and the ability of institutions to function. 

Prof Turton has commented that ‘all that remains are people earning a salary but generally lacking deep experience even if they have some sort of tertiary qualification’He has also noted that ‘hard-core Stalinist thinking’ has undermined innovative thinking. 

Meanwhile, the demographic demands of government policy – the striving for racial and gender ‘representivity’ in staffing, and the use of procurement as a means of ‘empowering’ particular businesses – have meant a reluctance to engage available skills and the introduction of unnecessary premiums into spending. Racial policy has created costs for the country that it can ill afford. 

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On top of this – and often justified by racial policy – is the fact that the African National Congress has purposefully and illegally politicised institutions mandated to be meritocratic in their operation. This only degrades further the professionalism that might exist.   

Each of these factors has played some role in the malignancy of corruption that defines so much governance. Where the prospects of lucrative spending and fat contracts arise, allegations of corruption frequently follow. The controversy around the Giyani Water Project is an example of this.

The cumulative effect of these failure has been recognised even by the officially-constituted South African Local Government Association, which commented to the media in 2014: ‘We did not understand the business at hand in terms of what it takes to run water services. Inappropriate people with inappropriate skills were appointed’.

Indeed, already in the years immediately following the transition, the indifferent state of the country’s municipal water supply infrastructure has been flagged as a problem. The phenomenon of ‘lost water’ was reported at the time to account for a significant part – sometimes in the order of 30% or so – of what was going through the pipes. Today, there are municipalities where this proportion reaches 60% or more.    

Read more: No lights, no water – the brave new world that is South Africa

Infrastructure demands a long-term view, with careful planning and a detailed understanding of technical issues. It’s hard to see this in the conduct of the state at present. To get its water supply system back on track, South Africa needs to rethink not only the conduct of its managers and the allocation of its resources, but the conduct of its politics and policy. 

It’s long past the time that South Africans recognised the importance of a professional, depoliticised state, staffed by ethical and competent experts, without regard for their demographic characteristics, and with sole regard for the excellence of outcomes.

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