Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency

Johannesburg - Minister of Water and Sanitation Gugile Nkwinti has vowed to take a tough stance on those who continue to pollute rivers across the country amid dire water shortages and high levels of unsafe drinking water.

On Friday, Nkwinti addressed industry experts, warning that his department would not hesitate to act against those found wanting.

“We have a major crisis. We must start thinking of how we can get this information to the people, particularly those in villages and townships. Rivers and streams are dirty. It’s happening everywhere you have informal settlements. We must instigate that these informal settlements along the rivers and streams must come to an end We need a major construction programme, including doing away with these informal settlements,” he said.

Over 3 million people currently do not have access to a basic water supply service and more than 14.1 million lack safe sanitation.

Research by the department has highlighted that up to 77% of rural households are indigent and that the high water demand has put strain on municipalities who are in turn failing to meet water conservation targets set out in the National Development Plan. Statistics currently show that South Africans are wasting water more than other countries in the world. The average use of water as instructed by the UN should be 173 litres per person per day but in the country, municipal water use stands at a staggering 237 litres per person per day.

“Municipalities are not here and yet that is where the most river pollution is happening. I’m saying we have to do something with the people who are polluting,” Nkwinti said.

The minister revealed he was previously locked into a two-hour dispute with residents in a community in Joburg. He said the community had restricted workers from coming into the area to conduct clean-up campaigns.

“I’m glad I was locked for two hours because it gave me an opportunity to listen to their concerns. We know (about the importance of preserving our rivers) and they don’t know. If we know and don’t do anything about it, then we are partnering in the pollution of those rivers,” he added.

There have also been calls for hefty sanctions to be imposed on large corporations, firms and factories who continuously dump their waste in rivers and who don’t comply with regulations contained in the National Water Act. Pharmaceutical pollutants are touted to be the fastest growing contributors to unsafe drinking water in the country. The Ministry of Water is, among other things, currently working on a National Water and Sanitation Bill which will emerge from an Operation Phakisa Project.

“We have had so many Phakisa’s. Where’s the difference? I want a Phakisa that will be informed by technical knowledge,” Nkwinti said.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has also raised concerns about various villages, including 89 of them in Giyani, which have no access to water. Makhanda was recently declared a disaster area following low dam levels.

World Wide Fund for Nature’s Christine Colvin who also participated in the World Water Day dialogue hosted by the ministry said: “The water challenges we face in SA are a wicked problem. They can’t be solved by the Department of Water and Sanitation alone. Municipalities also have a role to play in water waste treatment projects as well as waste management and refuse collection.”

Up to 37 local and international organisations have pledged to work with the government in reaching Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals which calls for clean water and sanitation to be provided to everyone by 2030.

Political Bureau