Water an Economic Enabler in any Growing Economy 

by Nico de Jager MPL, DA Gauteng Spokesperson on Infrastructure Development and Property Management 

Gauteng is widely agreed upon to be the economic hub of South Africa and even Africa. For any economy to grow there are certain enablers and services, water, power, transport, and connectivity, that must be uninterrupted for business to grow. Without these enablers the development of that economy will be stifled. Water is one enabler that is critical to growing the economy, creating jobs that will lead to political and social stability in the country.  

Gauteng is a landlocked province and with Johannesburg being the biggest city in the world not next to a port or a big river. Because of its’ topography Gauteng is almost completely reliant on electricity (from ESKOM) even for its water supply. As an economic hub Gauteng should have an uninterrupted supply of water, yet over the past 10 years we have seen a decline in the ability to provide uninterrupted water to the province.  

With the growing demand for water used in industries and mining and potable water for household use several water companies were in operation since 1903 until the establishment of the Rand Water Board to supply raw water to the Witwatersrand area.  

Rand Water has not been able to secure meaningful upgrades to its bulk services to the province for many years. Since the late 1980’s the bulk supply has been constant while the demand far outweighs the supply; basic economics of supply and demand which can explain the disastrous situation with regards to jobs and economic growth with which we are faced.  

As the population and industries grew so did the demand for additional water resources. Major schemes were developed such as the Vaal River and Barrage scheme in 1914 and 1924, Vereeniging Purification Plants in 1924, Vaal dam in 1938, Zuikerbosch Purification Plant in 1949 and then the Lesotho Highlands Scheme (LSH) in 1998. Phase I of the LSH was completed in 1998 and since then the design and budget process of phase II of the project has not only been delayed by almost 10 years but the cost of the project ballooned with allegations maladministration and corruption.  

The unwillingness of the National Department of Water and Sanitation to issue a license to Rand Water for an additional bulk supply line to bring more water to Gauteng has led to the increase in water shortages in Gauteng over the last couple of years where demand for potable water outweighs the supply of water. Lack of increased bulk supply lines by Rand Water and failure to proactively maintain water infrastructure has left many industries paralyzed and households water insecure for days on end.  

Municipalities need to be more biased towards maintenance and refurbishment of critical municipal services.  

For too long municipalities have failed in the upgrading and maintenance of water systems and as a result we have seen an increase in technical losses and poor service delivery achievements. Infrastructure backlog on water infrastructure in Johannesburg alone is more than R22 billion rand. A concerted effort to change overall Municipal Capex spending from below 60% on economic enabling infrastructure to a 75% targeted investment is what is needed to eat away at this backlog.  

How can we turn this situation around?  

As much as the national government and Gauteng provincial government cannot interfere with the autonomy of the municipalities, national and provincial government do have a responsibility to advise, capacitate and even incentivize municipalities to achieve infrastructure objectives.  

Infrastructure development should be at the forefront of Gauteng government and the budgeting of municipalities as it is needed to grow the economy and create jobs in the province. As much as municipalities must remain autonomous in how they spend and allocate budget these municipalities should be incentivized through a grant system. When they reach set targets and objectives on infrastructure development and spending, a municipality should qualify for additional grant funding as an incentive to spend more on infrastructure refurbishment and replacement.  

In recent months we have seen the municipalities of Tshwane and Johannesburg cut services to government institutions and big corporates for non-payment of services while hiding behind all sorts of legal excuses. The reality is that the revenue from these organisations also impacts on the ability of municipalities to execute on their mandate to deliver services to all. The ability for municipalities to provide a basket of social services to indigenous people relies on the ability to collect revenue owed to the municipalities.  

Municipalities cannot afford to carry default payers or late payments; account managers in the different entities must be equipped to resolve queries timeously and collect payments where there are disputes. Now, it is also true that some municipalities in Gauteng do have outstanding accounts with Rand Water and when a municipal account runs overdue because of a dispute it must be resolved quickly to ensure Rand Water can do upgrades and maintain their infrastructure.  

Municipalities and entities must ensure that project managers on water and networks are equipped with the knowledge to do their jobs and be held accountable for executing projects on time and within budget. No municipality can afford the inflated budgets on projects that benefit the corrupt elite as we have seen over the years. It can no longer be business as usual.  

In my opening statement I spoke about the state of infrastructure across the province and the dilemma we are faced with due to underspending on infrastructure to drive economic growth, but the province is also plagued with the vandalism of infrastructure. The quickest win would be to follow on what the President had alluded to in his State of Nation Address and declare all municipal electrical and water infrastructure as national key points. This will allow water towers, water reservoirs and substations to benefit from national security provided by the state.  

In addition, national key points are exempt from loadshedding and this will also protect infrastructure unnecessarily being switched on and off. During load-shedding substations are switched off for extended periods of time causing coolant to coagulate and when it comes back on the erosion because of the lack of coolant has a devastating effect on the lifespan of infrastructure while water reservoirs and towers often run dry during load-shedding adding to the frustration of residents. No power means no water and that ultimately impacts on the ability to grow the economy.  

Across the province many municipalities still have thousands of kilometers of asbestos pipes. These pipes are fragile and far beyond their useful lifespan and as soon as there is a sudden increase in pressure after a burst or loadshedding, multiple bursts will occur. Again, this highlights the importance of maintenance and refurbishment as well as for the exemption of water infrastructure from loadshedding schedules.  

Expensive recycled water from wastewater treatment works is pumped back into rivers that could have alternative uses. Municipalities should therefore be encouraged to start work on a policy that will allow for a dual pipe system on all new township developments. All parks, golf courses and industries should be encouraged to make use of recycled water suitable for industries.  A dual pipe system will provide a line for recycled water to be pumped back to be used for toilet flushing, watering of gardens and parks, etc.  

Lastly the provincial government could set a target, say 70% of total capital investment spending for municipalities on infrastructure replacement and refurbishment. As much as the municipalities will retain their autonomy, an incentive to reach a goal will assist municipalities to achieve a more enabling environment for economic growth in the long run.  

In closing, all water entities and departments should at all times communicate the need to reuse, recycle and save water. All municipalities must prioritise the need to introduce first line of response teams that can isolate bursts and reduce technical water losses. Saving water is not only the responsibility of consumers but also lies on the side of the supplier. While we cannot make more water, we can save water and protect our environment.