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The Department of Water and Sanitation’s War on Leaks programme (WoL) is on the receiving end of some heavy criticism as being ill-conceived, a waste of taxpayers’ money and, worse, leaving many of its trainees high and dry.

Without discounting the challenges that have been raised, especially by the trainees, the overall impact that the programme has had is significant. Granted, it has gone through some challenges and the trainees have every right to point these out to the department so that they are dealt with swiftly and effectively. This is important because it affects the livelihoods of the young people.

Some of the issues include non-payment of stipends and non-placement of those who have completed the programme. Thus, it would be disingenuous for anyone to deny that these are the two main challenges that affect the programme and the department has acknowledged them.

In this regard, Water and Sanitation Minister Gugile Nkwinti is reprioritising some of the department’s major projects to allow other crucial projects such as WoL to continue and achieve their objectives.

In his Budget speech in May, Nkwinti said the department must continue to deliver on its mandate.

To achieve this, there was a need to reprioritise and streamline spending to the Annual Performance Plan by reducing unauthorised, irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure.

“We also have to deal with the realities of budgetary constraints that are influenced by challenges emanating from previous financial years, as some historical commitments were not adequately budgeted for.”

On the strength of the minister’s intervention, the department prioritised the transfer of funds to Rand Water, the programme’s implementing agent, to pay the trainees their outstanding payments for May and June.

Acutely aware of water losses experienced in the country, the department had to think hard about remedial measures. As a consequence, WoL is one of the responses with which we can save the unnecessary water losses.

Thus, contrary to branding the programme as being ill-conceived, the programme is not a knee-jerk response but a well-thought-out plan of action to prevent water losses that cost the country more than R7.2billion a year. This is a staggering figure for unaccounted water as a direct result of leakages.

Given the magnitude in rand terms of this non-revenue water, WoL remains one of the sound interventions that the department is committed to continue, perfect and implement.

In this regard, the aim of WoL is to not only address non-revenue, but also to deal with the high unemployment rate among the youth. The programme is designed in such a manner that besides being aligned to vacancies, the trainees are able to take advantage of entrepreneurship opportunities. With the sort of skills that the youths exiting the programme possess, they can provide an alternative to established companies, serving small and remote communities on an equal footing.

However, despite the meticulous planning of the programme, a number of challenges have cropped up.

In an effort to resolve the challenges, the department is making some bold steps by working on an exit strategy for the trainees who have completed the training.

This includes entrepreneurship, formal employment and community work.

On placement, the department is pushing that instead of starting new programmes, trainees who are exiting them should be integrated into existing programmes.

These should be identified and audits carried out to take advantage of opportunities so that qualifying artisans and water agents are channelled into work streams.

Furthermore, the department is looking to identify entrepreneurial opportunities where the exiting trainees can provide an alternative to established companies.

The youths who have completed training could provide much-needed services in small and remote communities. However, the department is also alive to the fact that enterprise development is going to be critical if these youths are to become competitors to the established companies and create work opportunities.

One area that is often frowned upon but which could be beneficial to the youth is doing community work on a voluntary basis. The trained youths can put themselves at the heart of communities by volunteering, and later exploit emerging entrepreneurship and employment opportunities.

Further, beyond acquiring skills in the programme, exiting trainees should be open to further training opportunities, as multi-skilling will enhance their employability and ability to employ themselves.

WoL is a necessary programme that cannot be allowed to fall flat on its face. It is a tool that is at the disposal of our young people to use as a springboard to achieve greater things in life. The initiative is one intervention that our youth and the need for life-giving water cannot afford to be without.

* Sithole is a communicator at the Department of Water and Sanitation (Gauteng region)