Trouble has come to town

William Saunderson-Meyer says our water supply crisis has been a long time coming


Levels of public misery are scaling new heights. Or to be more accurate, systemic breakdowns that have long been endemic in platteland South Africa — and as a consequence mostly ignored by the urban commentariat that dominates the media discourse — have now come to town.

Already electricity is unavailable nationwide for at least a third of every day. These controlled outages, which ration power while Eskom scrambles to patch an infrastructure that is outdated, neglected, and the target of organised crime and political saboteurs, have an estimated daily cost of around R3bn-R4bn in Gross Domestic Product.

This week, the more than 6m people living in greater Johannesburg, the heart of the country’s economic machine, were hit out by a massive collapse in water supplies. Swathes of the city have been without water for 10 days, while others get a brief daily trickle. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

At at least two big public hospitals, staff have been asked to bring from home any water they can spare, so that at least the lavatories can be flushed. Daily Maverick reports that “multiple staff” in the emergency department in one hospital have contracted gastroenteritis as a result of the low levels of hygiene.

Unlike Cape Town’s “Day Zero” water crisis of a few years back, this is happening while all Gauteng’s feeder dams are close to full capacity and the rainy season just starting. This makes it difficult to blame the favourite villains behind every failed government endeavour — Jan van Riebeek and apartheid, assisted by climate change — but there’s always a need to find scapegoats. 

Rand Water blamed “warm weather and load shedding”. While it’s true that load shedding is an aggravating factor, since it prevents the timeous resupply of city reservoirs, that’s only part of the story. Ever since the African National Congress took office in 1994, the maintenance of provincial and city infrastructure has declined nationwide and is now almost non-existent. 

Johannesburg’s crisis comes at an inconvenient moment. The city is in political turmoil. 

The precarious Democratic Alliance-led coalition that since last year’s local government elections appeared to be restoring some basic governance to the pitifully neglected city, has just collapsed. DA mayor Dr Mpho Phalatse’s nominal allies — ActionSA, Economic Freedom Fighters, Congress of the People, United Democratic Movement, Africa Independent Congress and the Patriotic Alliance — switched sides to hand control of the city back to the ANC that a year ago they were pledging to voters to rescue it from.

The deposed mayor, Dr Mpho Phalatse, is challenging the procedural legality of her removal. In the meanwhile, the new administration is likely to be more focused on getting the corruption bandwagon rolling again than addressing the city’s decay. 

The new mayor, Dada Morero, says he is “looking into the water supply challenges” and has “commissioned a report”. He is seemingly a student of the Cyril Ramaphosa school of management.

Morero reassured residents that he would also be conducting an “in loco inspection” of the city’s reservoirs. It seems no one on his staff has whispered to him that there is little to be seen at the city’s completely enclosed, concrete water storage structures. 

None of this comes out of the blue. 

South Africa has been urbanising for decades at a rapid rate and eGoli, the City of Gold founded on the lure of quick wealth, is a magnet for migrants from all over Africa. While the city’s population was growing by an estimated 150,000 people annually, the city’s infrastructure was not only not being expanded but was steadily deteriorating. 

New reservoirs have not been built, while shanty towns and unplanned buildings have mushroomed. Illegal water connections have proliferated and piping has not been maintained. About 38% of the country’s reticulated water is lost to leaking pipes, with Johannesburg, Durban, Pretoria and Ekurhuleni — in that order — the worst offenders.

Nor is this anything new. All the major urban centres recently have been (Cape Town) or are (Nelson Mandela Bay) in the throes of water supply collapses.

More pertinently, in the hinterland of South Africa — perpetually at the periphery of media consciousness and hence ignored — the bleak future now dawning in our cities arrived years ago. Many towns, villages and rural areas years go moved beyond the tipping point, to an almost continuous failure of water supply.

In the past decade, KwaZulu-Natal’s lower South Coast, once a major local and international tourist destination, has seen arrivals plummet and property prices take a hammering because the Ugu District Municipality and Ugu Water have presided over the destruction of the region’s water infrastructure. On top of a lack of maintenance and upgrading, press reports chart a now familiar story: corruption, sabotage by disaffected employees, the appointment to senior positions of unqualified staff (ANC cadres and lots of nepotism) and an absence of the necessary technical skills.

Of course, those who can afford it have made alternative arrangements and installed water tanks. But outside of the rainy season and when there is no mains supply for sometimes 40 days in a row, that’s not a workable solution for businesses, hotels, and guesthouses.

In rural areas and townships, poor people already struggling have to manage through a combination of strategies. If they can afford it, they can buy water at R25 per 5l bottle. Otherwise, they fill their containers at dams and rivers and, when it is available, they draw from the water tankers that make intermittent and unscheduled appearances.

None of this water is reliably potable. For generations, South Africa was one of the surprisingly few countries in the world where there was no need in built-up areas to buy bottled fresh water; the piped municipal supplies were clean and safe to drink from the tap. That is no longer the case. 

There is at least one person who must be watching this unfold with a certain ç. In 2008, Dr Anthony Turton, a water expert with an international reputation, was suspended and then fired by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research for “insubordination” and “bringing [the CSIR] into disrepute”.

Turton’s sin was that he argued for an “urgent, well designed and informed intervention” by all involved in the water sector, failing which the dramatic decline in infrastructural development, compounded by the loss of skilled human resources, would cause a “significant crisis” both in the quantity and quality of water available. The water crisis, he said in a keynote international conference address that he was banned from delivering, was ultimately far more serious than the electricity crisis, which had then just started

For former president Thabo Mbeki, notoriously thin-skinned about criticism, this was pretty much tantamount to treason, especially coming from a white public service employee. But also, in the era where Mbeki was punting to international investors an imminent “African Renaissance”, Turton made the fatal mistake of outlining the political factors that would accelerate the decline, if left unaddressed.

Turton wrote that the electricity crisis marked for South Africa the end of the Uhuru Decade. This phenomenon, he wrote, had been manifest throughout Africa when liberation movements inherited infrastructure that worked for about 10 years, “before starting to break down through lack of investment in operation, maintenance and skilled human capacity”. 

“In South Africa’s case that infrastructure was particularly robust, so it has lasted a decade and a half. But it is now clearly under pressure and if left alone will collapse piece by piece, in the mid-term future,” Turton wrote in his doomed speech.

The rest is history. Turton was hounded out but appears to have thrived as a policy consultant to other African countries and multinational organisations. And the water crisis that Turton warned about in 2008 has developed exactly as he foresaw. 

Mbeki occasionally still pops up his grizzled visage to insist that he was right about almost everything — including the nature of HIV/AIDS, which cost nearly 330,000 unnecessary deaths — but at least has had the grace to publicly apologise for the ANC policy failures regarding Eskom.

I’m sure all of South Africa is looking forward to hearing a similar ANC apology, at a presidential level, over water. 

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