Continuous restructuring at the department of water affairs and sanitation could see the water crisis that hit Gauteng reoccurring, a water expert warned this week. Anthony Turton, a water expert previously with the CSIR, said the water system had been undermined by restructuring at the government department dealing with water affairs since 1994.
Until recently, it was called the department of environmental and water affairs, then split into the department of water affairs, and now it is being restructured to incorporate a new sanitation arm.
“The way to stop is to accept that restructuring is not the best remedy to institutional dysfunction,” he said. “What we have is what we need to build a better future on, and no new restructuring will make the delivery of services any better.”
Departmental spokesperson Sputnik Ratau did not respond to questions about the restructuring, but blamed economic crime for the water shortages.
Rand Water chairperson Matshidiso Hashatse said the utility, which is responsible for the provision of water to municipalities in Gauteng along with other customers making up less than 5% of its client base, realised it had a problem on its hands when multiple power failures hit its systems in a two-week period.
The reason it was able to previously survive load shedding without water shortages was because it has a “premium account” with Eskom.
“Power to Rand Water was never cut off for more than four hours,” Hashatse told City Press, because Rand Water’s 24-hour supplies of water would take up the slack.
“The thing is, we had arrangements with Eskom, but there is nothing they can do if cables just go.”
This caused a power failure – prompting Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane to blame the crisis on economic crime. The other power failures were caused by a combination of factors.
“The water challenges just experienced in Gauteng are due to vandalism and criminal activity impacting on service provision,” said Ratau. But Turton said it was not an economic crime, but a failure of “soft infrastructure”.
He said: “All critical infrastructure like water and energy consists of two components. Hard infrastructure is the actual pumps, pipes and reservoirs; soft infrastructure is the subsystem that connects the flow of data between critical components of the bigger system.
“Restructuring, for whatever reason it was initiated, always results in a shock to the system,” said Turton.
“The cumulative shocks have resulted in institutional instability and dysfunction.”
Hashatse insists the flow of data is intact as the different components communicate with each other. “On the energy side, we are the clients. The waterenergy nexus is very important. The minister spoke the last time we had a press conference about the need to improve on communication – it does not mean there is none, just that we need to improve as we are dependent on each other,” she said.
So why didn’t Rand Water have generators to take over when the power utilities failed?
“We have been investigating the issue of alternate power even before the crisis,” Hashatse said, adding that her utility pumps about 4 000 megalitres of water a day. The largest generator it could find has the capacity to
The cumulative shocks have resulted in institutional instability and dysfunction
pump 200 megalitres, or 5% of Rand Water’s daily production. It cost R100 million.
“The cost is prohibitive,” said Hashatse. “It might be an alternative for a small-scale problem.”
Rand Water’s business was to provide water, and constant trade-offs had to be made between how much of its resources are used for water supply, and how much was used for the input costs of providing that water.
The parastatal’s board had been exploring options, including hydroelectricity, for backup power since last year, Hashatse said.
But these needed approval as it was not operating on its own as a state entity.
The crisis is not over yet – Hashatse said it would be fully resolved once high-lying areas in Mogale City had their water supplies restored – but she would like to see the integrated manner in which Rand Water, the department of water affairs and sanitation, and the municipalities are working together to resolve the crisis continuing.
“The department is the best one to ask what’s next,” says Hashatse. “From our side, we’re happy we’re supplying customers.
“I think if we continue working in an improved, integrated, comprehensive manner – I can’t say it won’t happen again because of cable theft – but it can be mitigated in future.”