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eThekwini Municipality water woes to cost billions, could take years for infrastructure to be fixed

File Picture

File Picture

Published Aug 18, 2021


DURBAN - ETHEKWINI Municipality needs to raise a whopping R8 billion to rebuild its ageing water infrastructure.

But there is little hope of this happening as the unit responsible for water provision has a woefully inadequate annual budget of R478 million.

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The head of water and sanitation, Ednick Msweli, painted a grim picture of the state of the city’s water infrastructure, revealing to the executive committee yesterday that it could take years for the municipality to fix infrastructure that was already failing.

The issue of water losses, which has been an ongoing challenge for the metro, was again raised by the audit committee in its report tabled before the exco members.

Msweli said some of the city’s infrastructure was already on borrowed time as it had reached the end of its lifespan.

“If you have infrastructure that was built to last for 70 years, after 70 years you are on borrowed time and anything can happen. This R478m (budget) does not all go to the pipes, some of it goes to the purchasing of water meters,” said Msweli, making clear his budget challenges.

He warned that if nothing was done in the next 10 years, the costs would balloon to R17 billion.

Msweli’s warning comes on the heels of a report looking into the state of the city’s drinking water management, that revealed that more than half was lost and the city generates no money from it. The report was compiled in May this year.

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The report identified challenges within the unit that needed to be addressed, including water losses, meter problems, ageing infrastructure, and backlogs in the provision of water and sanitation, especially in informal settlements.

The major problem contributing to water losses, the report states, is that over the past 3 years, billed metered sales have decreased by almost 20%. As a result non-revenue water (NRW) has increased from 35% to more than 50%.

NRW is water that the city pays a supplier for, but is not generating revenue from because the water is lost due to non-billing, leaks and illegal connections.

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In response to questions from The Mercury this week, Msweli said for the month of June, the losses had declined to under 50%.

The report revealed that there are 526 995 active water meters to be read monthly, of which 508 393 are billable and 18 602 are non-billable.

Msweli had told The Mercury that non-billable meters were meters that serviced communities, like communal taps that did not belong to one person. He said of the 508 393 billable meters, water usage for about 40 000 were being estimated, contributing to the problem of water losses.

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The report said EWS (the eThekwini Water and Sanitation Unit) had a council-approved 10-year strategy to reduce NRW to 25%.

It said this action plan called for R4bn capital investment over the 10-year period and a R2bn operational investment. The plan consists of reducing real losses and commercial losses.

“In addition, with assistance from National Treasury, EWS is conducting a detailed feasibility study to reduce NRW in the ‘Pink’ area (Phoenix, Inanda, Ntuzuma and KwaMashu). This area is approximately 10% of the system,” it said.

Durban mayor Mxolisi Kaunda described the situation as critical, saying the city needs to change how it drafts its budget and put more emphasis on prioritising basic needs such as the provision of water.

“We need to start changing the way we budget. The water issue requires our urgent attention. Even if we stop building houses, roads and redirect that money to deal with the issue of water as a scarce commodity, we cannot be everywhere with our budget. A person can live without a surfaced road, but they cannot live without water, let’s deal with the basics,” said Kaunda.

There was a need to address the issue of building settlements without planning for infrastructure, he said.

“The issue of infrastructure must be looked at and be budgeted for accordingly (before building),” he said.

Kaunda said the water levy that the city introduced this year was a necessary step to address the issue of ageing infrastructure.

“If you have an infrastructure challenge and no budget that allows you to make a dent in that, the levy that was negotiated in council was one of the ways to address that,” he said.

DA councillor Yogis Govender said it could take between 33 and 100 years to address infrastructure challenges at a cost of more than R100bn.

Chief whip and ANC councillor Sibongiseni Mkhize said the city should begin a programme to detect water leaks in order to prevent water losses.

Dr Anthony Turton of the Centre for Environmental Management Water Research said eThekwini was sitting with a serious problem regarding its NRW, saying the national average for water losses of this kind was about 20%.

He said losing such volume created a vicious cycle that could bankrupt the municipality if not quickly attended to.

“We must remember that this is water that the municipality has already paid for. If the municipality cannot get that money back, it will be unable to do maintenance and upgrades.”

Turton said if the system was not maintained, it could suffer more water losses and the water supply would become unstable.