HEADING FOR MURKY WATERS
Recent rains have brought relief to many drought-stricken parts of the country, with forecasts indicating that South Africa might be out of the woods this year. But concerns around the management of water infrastructure remain.
Women carry buckets of water that they received from a reservoir in Soweto at the beginning of November. Restrictions in the area left residents scrambling for water.
south Africa may be out of the woods this year, as refreshed climate models predict a summer of normal or even above-average rainfall, which should help replenish dams and provide some relief to struggling farmers. But the country’s problems with drought and scarce water resources are far from over.
It will probably take three years to replenish its main dams and the steady progression of climate change means that in the years ahead, South Africa and neighbouring countries in the region will continue to experience higher temperatures, drought and erratic rainfall – possibly even floods.
The trend will put an ever-increasing strain on the country’s crumbling water infrastructure, which as the population grows is likely to put South Africa in a similar predicament as it was a few years ago when delays in the construction of the Medupi and Kusile power stations led to crippling electricity shortages.
Already in deficit
According to a paper published by the Institute for Security Studies in March, national water withdrawals already exceeded reliable supply and even with all the large scale interventions planned by the department of water and sanitation (DWS), rising demand from municipalities, industry and agriculture would keep this the case until 2035.
The challenge is compounded by the fact that municipalities are losing at least a quarter of the water they should be able to provide through leaking pipes, while a further 10% is unaccounted for – meaning that a significant chunk of revenue which water boards need to deliver is being lost.
At the same time, sewerage and water treatment plants have deteriorated so much that the quality of SA’s drinking water is declining while rivers are being polluted, posing a threat to the poor communities who live on their banks.
The latest Blue Drop report published by the DWS last year showed that the quality of the country’s drinking water dropped by eight percentage points between 2012 and 2014 – the first fall since the monitoring system was put into place in 2008. The new overall score was still high at 79.6% but in some rural areas it was a shocking 9% – well below the safety standard of 50%. Water service delivery also appears to be worsening – according to the General Household Survey released by Statistics SA this year, the ratio of households which described this as “good” fell from 76.4% in 2005 to 62% in 2015, while the ratio for those which perceive it as “poor” jumped from 7.8% to 12.5%.
Irregular spending on water infrastructure
To make matters worse, the AuditorGeneral’s report in November showed that even though it had a clean audit, irregular spending by the DWS soared by 300% to R1.7bn in the financial year which ended March 2016, mainly due to correct procedures not being followed when projects were allocated to external agencies.