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EC water crisis: is govt doing enough?

Home Government & Municipal EC water crisis: is govt doing enough?

AS South Africa battles a third wave of Covid-19 amidst the destruction and looting in parts of the country in recent weeks, it’s easy to forget another looming catastrophe: a water crisis.

That’s the warning from Raymond Obermeyer, Managing Director at SEW-Eurodrive, who said the Eastern Cape situation is particularly perilously, with dam levels at record lows after a multi-year drought and the situation exacerbated by poor management of water infrastructure.

“A well maintained and sustainable water and sanitation system is essential for any functioning economy. Water scarcity has a profoundly negative influence, impacting economic productivity, livelihoods, safety and security,” he said.

And it’s not just the Eastern Cape’s water infrastructure that is in a woeful state after decades of mismanagement and inadequate maintenance.

“The Department of Water and Sanitation is well aware of the extent of the crisis and has admitted that 56% of its 1150 treatment plants are in a poor and critical condition with 265 in a state of decay,” said Obermeyer, pointing out that Iris dashboard data shows that 75% of wastewater treatment plants run by municipalities achieved less than 50% compliance to minimum effluent standards in 2020.

“In addition to poorly managed water infrastructure the country has also allowed many of its rivers and dams including the Vaal River and the Vaal and Hartebeespoort dams to become polluted in recent years.”

Earlier this year the South African Human Rights Commission argued that government’s continued failure to address the issue of pollution in the Vaal River and Vaal Dam has become a human rights issue and that responsible government officials should face criminal charges.

Fortunately, said Obermeyer, government has started to acknowledge the scale of the looming water crisis with the accelerated establishment of a National Water Resources Infrastructure Agency and the prioritisation of 11 water and sanitation related infrastructure projects valued at R106 billion.

Four of these projects, valued at approximately R68 billion, are ready for investment with construction expected to commence in the next two years.


For several years there have been calls for the establishment of a National Water Regulator, based on the theory that the Department of Water and Sanitation cannot be both a player and a referee in this space.

Obermeyer said a regulator would ensure that regulatory oversight is separated from water resource management and water services provision. “Encouragingly, it appears that we are moving closer to the establishment of a water regulator with both National Treasury approving the idea and the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission Council formally proposing its establishment.”

He questioned why it had taken so long for government to start acting more proactively. “The reality is that South Africa’s water challenges are not going to be solved overnight. It takes many years to build water infrastructure and is expensive to fund.

“Given the constrained state of government’s finance there is the very real risk that funding challenges will delay these projects. As a result, it may very well be public-private partnerships that will fund, implement and manage these water projects.”

In addition to public-private partnerships, Obermeyer said South Africa needs to implement 4IR technologies to better monitor and control water distribution networks. “In a water constrained country such as South Africa, water must be treated as the very precious resource it is. We cannot afford waste through water leaks, for example.

“We need measurable action when it comes to managing water. A key element of this is to better manage our scarce water resources sustainably with infrastructure that is fit for purpose. Should we fail, the Eastern Cape will not be the only province contemplating a day in the not-too-distant future when the taps run dry.”

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