Sifiso Mkhize is the Acting Director General of the Department of Water and Sanitation.

JOHANNESBURG - In Africa, water is considered a common resource that is not only of social and economic importance, but also of cultural and spiritual significance. 

There is a strong body of religious functionaries, traditional healers and traditional leaders who play a crucial role in their communities and in the management of natural and water resources South Africa. 

The legal framework in South Africa, that is anchored by very specific sections in the Constitution, focuses on redressing the inequalities of the past by making provisions for the involvement of local users in water resource management. 

With this in mind, President Jacob Zuma and the people of the Eastern Cape, finally launched the multi-billion rand Mzimvubu Project in April 2014. The launch came decades after the initial discussions were started on the development of Mzimvubu River, which is  the largest undeveloped water resource in South Africa. The aim of the Mzimvubu Project includes being a catalyst for the unlocking  economic potential of the Eastern Cape province.   

The Mzimvubu river has its source in the northern region of the Eastern Cape, in the area of Matatiele and Mount Fletcher near the Lesotho border. The river then flows into the Indian Ocean at Port St. Johns. It is approximately 400 km long with a catchment area of 19,853 km². Formerly the river mouth was used as a harbor, but this activity was abandoned in the 1940s when the tidal mouth of the river became too shallow for large vessels to dock. 

The Mzimvubu Project will see the building of a new dam at Ntabelanga on the Tsitsa River with a storage capacity of ±490 million cubic meter, including a small hydropower plant that can generate up to 7 MW of power. The project will also include a new 100 Ml/day Water Treatment Works at the Ntabelanga Dam. 

An additional dam near Lalini on the Tsitsa River, downstream of Ntabelanga, will also be constructed. Lalini Dam will have a storage capacity of ±232 million cubic meter, with a small hydropower plant at the dam, able to generate 6.7 MW of power, as well as a medium sized hydropower station capable of generating 45MW downstream thereof, with water conveyed from the dam to the larger hydropower station via a pipe/tunnel.

The Ntabelanga Dam site is located approximately 25 km east of the town of Maclear and north of the R396 Road. The Lalini Dam site is situated approximately 17 km north east of the small town Tsolo.

The high voltage power line to link the Lalini power station to the existing Eskom grid will be approximately 18.5 km and the power line linking Ntabelanga dam to the Eskom grid will be approximately 13 km. Power lines will also be constructed to supply power for the construction at the two dam sites and for operating five pumping and booster stations along the bulk distribution infrastructure. 

The Mzimvubu Project will submerge some roads and to address this, approximately 80 km of local roads will be re-aligned. Additional local roads will also be upgraded to support social and economic development in the area. The road design will be very similar to the existing roads as well as be constructed using similar materials. 

Now the questions that South Africans may ask, includes “So What? What does this project do for me as an ordinary South African?” It is well documented in the STATSSA Eastern Cape Community Survery Results 2016 that the Eastern Cape experiences a high migration, which was a result of 939 765 people emigrating from the province. The migration comes as a result of our people seeking a better life in the more developed cities of Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg.

The STATSSA survey also indicates that only three quarters of households in the Eastern Cape (75% or 1,3 million) have access to piped water. 464 838 of households in Eastern Cape reported that they had ran out of money to buy food in the 12 months before the survey. Nearly a fifth (17,6% or 311 263) of households in Eastern Cape missed a meal over the same period. These are just some of the reasons for the migration out of the Eastern Cape province. 

With the Ntabelanga Dam, the Mzimvubu Project will supply the potable water requirements of ±725 000 people. A bulk water distribution system will deliver treated water in bulk to ±660 villages in the identified supply area as well as a distribution system for the irrigation water to irrigate ±2 800 ha of high potential agricultural land. This will enable the commercial and subsistence farming that many people in the Eastern Cape yearn for.

The integrated multi-purpose Mzimvubu project is therefore important because it will ensure domestic water supply as well as power generation and thereby support agriculture, transport, tourism, and the local industries; having the domino effect of propelling socio-economic development for the region. And herein lies the importance of the Mzimvubu Project. 

It is also significant that the project’s footprint spreads over three district municipalities namely the Joe Gqabi district municipality in the north west, the OR Tambo district municipality in the south west and the Alfred Nzo district municipality in the east and north east. The dams are also strategically placed in order to allow for the possible supply to the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality and the Orange/Vaal River System, in the longer term; and thereby the potential for greater economic development of the Eastern Cape.
Securing the funding of this mega infrastructure project is of obvious concern. To this end, the Johannesburg Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), held in December 2015, identified the Mzimvubu Project as one of the projects that can benefit from the aforesaid development funding. 

During the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the Chinese President Xi Jin Ping announced that China will invest a fund of US$ 60 billion to support the development of China-Africa cooperation for a limited period of three years. 

The Mzimvubu Project has been identified by the South African Government as one of the projects that can benefit from development funding. Binding agreements relating to the implementation of the Mzimvubu Project, have not yet been concluded and are still a subject matter of negotiation with the National Treasury assisting in these processes. The Mzimvubu project will be implemented in accordance with the legislative procurement framework, taking into account the opportunities of development funding. 

The current construction cost estimate for the project is R15.3 billion and the construction period is dependent on the availability of funds, however it is estimated that the construction period will not be less than 7 years.

The Mzimvubu Project will be the largest infrastructure project of its kind that is undertaken since democracy and South Africa has a large pool of skilled black and young professionals that have delivered many successful infrastructure projects since the advent of democracy. These successes are not limited to the Spring Grove Dam in KwaZulu Natal; the Olifants River Water Resources Development Project for the Raising of Flag Boshielo Dam and the building of the De Hoop Dam as well as the Nandoni Dam in Limpopo; the construction of the Inyaka Dam, the Driekoppies Dam and the Vaal River Eastern Sub-system Augmentation Project in Mpumalanga. 

The Lesotho Highlands Water Project Phase 1 Katse and Mohale reservoirs, the Muela Hydropower station, and 124km of tunnels and associated infrastructure that were completed in 2004 are another of the many successes that this democratic government delivered.

The benefits that will be derived from the Mzimvubu River are of national importance because it will contribute to addressing the multiple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment. It also has the ability to augment the Vaal River system and this will in turn support the economic hub of South Africa - Gauteng.

In recognizing the economic, cultural and spiritual importance of water as an important catalyst for socio-development, the stakeholder engagement that is led personally by the Water and Sanitation Minister noted that the procurement strategy of the project aims to maximise job opportunities and the use of local labour. The use of local suppliers and local employment are central to the success of the Mzimvubu project and based on the feasibility study conducted, approximately 6700 employment opportunities will be created during the construction phase of the project.

These commitments are in line with the announcement by Water and Sanitation Minister, Nomvula Mokonyane, in her capacity as the public trustee of South Africa's water resources to “ensure... that water is protected, used, developed, conserved, managed and controlled in a sustainable and equitable manner for the benefit of all persons”. 
The Constitution provides an enabling framework for contributing to poverty alleviation and it is a tool to enhance social and environmental justice but it is only through projects like the development of the Mzimvubu River that the ideals of the Constitution are realised. It is when young people are at work and when communities have access to decent sanitation and access to reliable sources of water; that the Constitution works. 

The Minister is resolute in her efforts for transformation and has publicly stated that “our people should not only be tap openers, but should instead be meaningful contributors to the sector. Women, youth and the disabled should be the first to benefit from meaningful opportunities in the sector.”

Sifiso Mkhize is the Acting Director General of the Department of Water and Sanitation.