The coronavirus crisis has prompted health authorities around the world to remind everyone of the importance of regular hand washing using soap and water. For most people in South Africa that is easy to do. But for a great many it is extremely difficult.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has many failures: pervasive corruption, state capture, tragedies such as Esidimeni, rampant crime, power blackouts, poor schooling, and bankrupt state-owned enterprises among them.
But probably the worst in terms of its effect on vast numbers of ordinary people across the land is its failure to ensure reliable supplies of clean water. This despite the fact that the Constitution states that "everyone has the right to have access to...sufficient food and water".
Hardly a day goes past without yet another report of people in villages in various parts of the country having to trudge from their homes to springs or rivers or dams to collect water which they then carry home in buckets on their heads or carted by wheelbarrow.
Frequently the problem is not a temporary breakdown, but one that has been part of their lives year in and year out. The daily drudgery of the quest for water no doubt consumes so much time and energy that there is little left for more than the odd protest.
If the words of the Constitution mock these people, so do the ANC's spending priorities. Last month's budget noted that the National Treasury had spent R162 billion over the past 10 years on "financially distressed" state-owned enterprises, with another R16.4 billion to be given to SAA alone in the next few years.
In a special report published last week, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) shows how South Africa's water system, once admired around the world just as Eskom was once admired, has become a man-made crisis, just like Eskom. The report shows how failures in the supply of reliable water and disposal of sewage are to a large extent the result of the disintegration of local government. It also examines failures at national level.
Moreover, the report quotes a leading water specialist as saying that there is no technical or economic reason why poor communities should not have reliable water.
The report – entitled Thirsty Land: South Africa's Water Crisis and How to Overcome It – also identifies solutions. Some of these are technical, such as better systems of detecting and dealing with the wastage caused by leaks.
The report further explores opportunities to augment the country's water supply via desalination and the recycling of waste water. It notes that South African companies did pioneering desalination work in the 1970s, and that the recycling plant in Windhoek, built by South Africans using South African technology and operational since 1970, is still regarded as one of the finest on the planet.
The master plan of the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS), now in its eighth version, believes that curbing losses, reducing overconsumption, and augmenting supplies in various ways could enable South Africa to have a slight surplus of water available by 2030.
The IRR points out, however, that achieving this objective would necessitate major political reforms. Among these are getting rid of corruption, and of the policies of cadre deployment and affirmative action, which have crippled not only municipalities but also the DWS itself. The crisis in Cape Town in 2018 showed that it was possible to reduce consumption, but reduced consumption across the country would have to be permanent: at 237 litres a day, South Africa's domestic consumption of water is much higher than the international average of 173.
Last month's budget review reported that R117 billion would be spent on water and sanitation infrastructure over the next three years. Over the next 10 years, according to water specialists in the private sector, the amount required for both new infrastructure and repair of existing infrastructure would top R1 trillion.
At least a third of this will have to come from the private sector – probably much more, given the country's fiscal straits. The IRR paper notes that various initiatives have been launched in the private sector to mobilise capital for infrastructural investment in water. One idea is to establish "independent water producers" following the model of "independent power producers" in the energy sector. Such independent producers could be used for both desalination and wastewater treatment.
The money is available. Mobilising it will require bankable projects, sound policies, secure contracts, timeous decisions, and a serious willingness to engage the private sector. It will also require a fundamental transformation of the ANC.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. He is also the author of the Thirsty Land report. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.