Cape Town's main water supply from the Theewaterskloof dam outside Grabouw. File picture: Bram Janssen/AP
Day Zero – the day on which Cape Town’s taps will run dry as its water reserves give way to the drought – has been pushed back. As a ‘one off voluntary’ contribution to assisting the city and its residents with the drought, farmers in the Elgin-Grabouw Valley released a torrent from the Eikenhof Dam into the Palmiet River, which would flow into the Upper Steenbras dam, and then into the pipes and to the taps of Cape Town.  

While the Elgin-Grabouw region has also been hit by the drought, the impact has not been as severe as in Cape Town. The Groenland Water User Association – a private body managing the dam – determined there was sufficient for its needs and could offer its excess to the City and its residents. 

A good news story on the face of it – an example of cooperation between different regions and interest groups in addressing a pressing problem. 

In Parliament, our representatives were less convinced. Last week, members of the portfolio committee on water and sanitation took issue with the fact that a large majority of dams are in private ownership, and with the fact that the agricultural sector was South Africa’s single greatest water user. 

‘We want to know who is this one that has so much water and the remaining 3 000 dams,’ declared committee chair Hlomane Chauke. ‘Who is in control of those dams? We have a drought crisis here but some dams are privately owned. This is something that is political and we have to resolve it. It cannot be that when so many of our people, you see them with containers every day.’

Mr Chauke received enthusiastic backing from some of his colleagues. Some opined that government needed to nationalise dams to ensure that benefits would be shared throughout the country.

In other words, for a resource of such seminal importance as water, only government could guarantee efficiency and justice in allocation. 

That South Africa has challenges in its water supply system is common cause. But to attribute this to private water users and go and demand ever more intrusive state powers is to ignore the lessons of the country’s experience.

Private ownership of water in South Africa was effectively ended two decades ago. The 1998 National Water Act abolished riparian rights and vested trusteeship of South Africa’s water resources in the national government. Henceforth, water would be allocated by a system of licences, guided by the dual principles of sustainability and equity. 

Farmers’ ability to use water resources has been governed by the permissions extended to them by government. The maintenance of privately owned infrastructure does little to alter this. Agriculture is a business in which water is essential, and farmers – individually or collectively – often keep supplies at hand, in the same way they would keep any input. This is done in terms of their water licences and allocations. 

In any event, those thinking that seizing private dams is a solution to the country’s water problems are mistaken. According to the latest Infrastructure Report Card from the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE), while it is true that the Department of Water and Sanitation only owns 320, or 6%, of the country’s dams, these hold 86.4% of South Africa’s retained water. Privately owned dams, while providing useful additional storage capacity, are dwarfed by that of the state. There just isn’t all that much to seize – and even if they were seized, much of what they contained would still be needed for agricultural purposes, unless government was willing to kill off the sector, along with the food security, jobs and exports earnings it provides. 

South Africa’s water regime already embodies the statism that our MPs demand.

And herein lies a large part of the problem. Whether the state could exercise custodianship – for sustainability and equity – always hinged on its having the administrative and technical capacity to do so. 

Unfortunately, the state’s ambitions have exceeded its skills. Difficulties and delays in issuing water licences were an early indication of this (reforms meant to expedite these – while welcome – seem only partially to have alleviated the problem). Ageing infrastructure and inadequate maintenance have meant large-scale water losses – perhaps as much as 40% of piped water. Poor wastewater treatment and discharge into water systems have aggravated existing scarcities.  

SAICE makes the observation that in addition to South Africa’s inherent limitations in water supply, much of the current crisis must be understood in terms of governance choices made (or avoided):

It is important to recognise that it is also a crisis caused essentially by poor management at both national and local level – poor planning, unnecessary delays in implementation and a concerning decline in institutional competence. Other contributory issues include financial constraints at both national and local level, irresponsible consumption patterns, and wastage directly due to the poor condition of some infrastructure. The current widespread drought has exacerbated and exposed these weaknesses.

Renowned water scientist Dr Anthony Turton adds that debate around water in South Africa has become so politicised that the realities of hydrology are often subordinated to the dictates of ideology – part of which is a suspicion of private enterprise. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this was on display in Parliament. 

But it’s a costly path to take. There is little in South Africa’s record to keep faith in the ability of the state to manage the country’s water resources on its own. It’s questionable whether it has done so in respect of equity, and doubtful in the extreme that it has done so in respect of sustainability. Indeed, there have been dark warnings that Day Zero in Cape Town may be followed by similar failures elsewhere.

The expertise and cooperation of all stakeholders is demanded – not least those farmers who have sought to manage water for their own needs. South Africa needs, in other words, much greater private participation in its water systems.

Of course, none of this suggests that there is not a productive conversation to be had about the role of privately managed resources in the context of a crisis such as exists today. Efficiencies in water use and environmental management by the private sector are key issues. But these are debates best had among partners, not opponents.

In so doing, perhaps Day(s) Zero can be avoided…

* Terence Corrigan is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.