Johannesburg - Almost two weeks without water left Dr Saleem Badat in a position where he had to consider shutting down Rhodes University. The vice-chancellor had to make an impassioned appeal, which went all the way to the president’s office, for a 60-year-old broken pump to be repaired.
For Bernie Nel, a Krugersdorp resident, the two months of interrupted water because of overdue maintenance meant she couldn’t properly care for her quadriplegic husband. He is vulnerable to infections and cleaning sheets and hands frequently is essential.
“Water scarcity is not just about the actual running out of water, it’s about a whole lot of invisible things,” says Anthony Turton, professor at the Centre for Environmental Management, University of the Free State. These seemingly invisible consequences of SA’s damaged water infrastructure have been playing themselves out in an ever growing list of towns around the country.
According to a survey conducted by the DA, 26 Free State towns were without running water or had constant supply interruptions last month. The Department of Water Affairs (DWA) has said R680-million needs to be spent in the next decade to upgrade and maintain our water infrastructure. Two decades of low maintenance has put us in a position where systems that should work are falling apart.
“A water treatment plant should last 50 years plus, why is it failing after 10 years?” says Phillip de Souza, water engineer at Emanti Water and Environmental Engineering Services. And unfortunately, the costs of replacing rather than maintaining are phenomenal.
But even if the investment the DWA seeks materialises, it could prove fruitless without human capital. Earlier this year the South African Institution of Civil Engineering reported that only 78 out of 250 engineering posts at the DWA were filled.
They also found that a quarter of those employed were aged between 60 and 64. DWA spokesperson, Mava Scott, confirmed that one of the department’s priorities was seeking more skilled staff.
“We have lost a significant amount of human capacity driven by the political necessity of transformation,” says Turton. Water expert Professor Jackie King, says that we often have good ideas at a national level, but by the time they reach municipalities the technical skills to implement them are lacking. For example one of South Africa’s newest dams, the Berg Dam in the Western Cape, is specially designed to mimic the natural flows of the river and can release mini floods in what should be wet season. However, King says no one is monitoring the system, so we cannot be sure it’s working.
The recent State of Non-Revenue Water in South Africa report found that R7.2-billion of municipal water is not being paid for each year. That equates to 36.8 percent of our municipal water. Of this, a third is water that is not being paid for and two thirds is water that is leaking out of the system.
In small municipalities the level of non-revenue water was 72.5 percent on average.
In other water scarce countries, such as Australia, non-revenue water levels are often less than 10 percent. As the 30th driest country in the world, we need to keep our levels of lost water low.
The study also highlighted some incompetencies at municipal level. Zama Siqualaba of WRP Consulting Engineers, who were involved in the study said of 237 municipalities, only 132 had data sets they could use.
Many had inaccurate figures, in some cases claiming to sell more water than they had in the system.
“The public is often not as aware of the kind of level of thinking and planning and development that the DWA does because municipalities are the people they deal with mostly and they are the service providers and they have, to a large extent, failed,” says Professor Denis Hughes, director at the Institute for Water Research at Rhodes University. Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa has set a target to reduce this non-revenue water in municipalities to 15 percent by next year.
The Water Research Commission says this will be achievable only if billions of rand is poured into water demand management across the country. - The Star
l All three parts in this series can be read at www.thestarprojects. wordpress.com.