Sustainability of South Africa’s ‘Water Miracle’ Questioned

Note:As Prof. Kader Asmal moves on from the role of Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry and the function is taken up by Ronnie Kasrils (previously Deputy Minister of Defence), it is clear that all is not well in the water supply and sanitation sector in South Africa.A great deal was sacrificed in the interests of accelerated delivery, mainly in the form of community engagement, consumer education and a disregard for the hard learned lessons of development from around the world.The article particularly quotes the Director General, Mr Mike Muller, as effectively blaming the communities and consumers for the failure. However, sustainable services have not been delivered, whether the cause of failure is technical, social or financial. It is not as though these issues are new or a surprise in the South African situation. It is not as though the circumstances leading up to the failure have not been highlighted on dozens of occasions over the past few years. What is surprising is that all the warnings were not heeded.It is a double irony and extremely cynical to blame the people for the failure.NELSPRUIT, South Africa – The government is reviewing its water delivery programme following shock reports that its delivery of drinking water to over three million rural people may be nothing more than a pipe dream with more than half of recipients no longer getting clean or even regular water. Independent studies by non-government organisations indicate that water minister, Kader Asmal’s rural delivery schemes are in serious disarray because of fatal flaws in the way government implemented the projects and because rural communities refuse to pay for water. The reports don’t just come from critics, with department officials conceding at a departmental conference in East London in March that the country’s approach to water delivery had to be radically reviewed. Estimates for the failure of projects range from between 50% and 90%, with residents in some multi-million rand schemes reduced to fetching water from rivers again just months after the launch of water reticulation networks. Experts such as Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) sanitation and water policy analyst, Barry Jackson, are quick to stress that the collapse is not entirely the government’s fault, with recipient communities guilty of rampant vandalism and water piracy.In one such community, Sinthumule residents in the Northern Province have crippled a R48-million presidential lead project by destroying water metres and breaching water pipes while making illegal connections in 18 separate villages. Communities in Stinkwater and Luphisi in Mpumalanga and a string of other villages across the country are also refusing to pay even minimum fees for the water, fatally undermining the financial sustainability of the entire water delivery programme. No firm figures are available yet but initial data released at the East London conference indicate that government’s cost recovery on its R2,2-billion water delivery programme is as low as 4%. “The 50% figure for failures is quite feasible. The message we are getting from both the department and other operators is that the high rate of failure is cause for alarm and has prompted a serious rethink,” said Jackson. Jackson is not alone in his misgivings. Alternative Information for Development Centre (AIDC) co-ordinator, George Dor, insists that up to 90% of projects have suffered interruptions or complete failure. “The department has opted for projects that are way too expensive for poor rural communities where people simply can’t afford to pay for water. There is an emphasis on delivery and not enough on sustainability. There is broad agreement within the government that there are problems but the minister has to be seen to be delivering politically,” said Dor. “So, when a borehole engine blows, it’s a disaster and people who can’t afford to pay for water certainly can’t afford to fix the engine, so the whole scheme stops working.” “Communities often don’t understand that they have to maintain the water projects themselves because officials rely on top-down communication and fail to consult widely enough with recipients.” He adds that projects are often crippled by inappropriate design and poor quality materials, with many villages rejecting the schemes as too costly. “Some schemes fail simply because water pumps run out of diesel and no-one buys more supplies. As a result, people are reduced to collecting water from unprotected sources such as rivers all over again,” he explains.While everyone agrees that there are serious problems, most other experts in the sector believe that the failure rate is closer to 50%. “We are in contact with water officials all the time and are convinced from what they tell us that 50% or more of water schemes are not working properly … because of poor management and poor maintenance,” says SA Municipal Worker’s Union spokeswoman, Anna Weekes. “That means that at least 1,5-million people are not getting regular supplies of clean water.” Health manager of South Africa’s largest water NGO, Mvula Trust, Ned Breslin, is even more circumspect. “I’ve heard the figures but don’t believe that anyone can prove it. There are serious problems but they happen in all countries when a lot of water supply systems are put in place,” he said. “Unexpected problems always occur, and you have to go back and do a bit of tweaking.” Breslin added that Mvula helped identify the major failings in both government and NGO schemes after conducting a comprehensive review of 21 government and 56 Mvula water projects right across the country. The study, which targeted particularly problematic schemes, found that the low rate of cost recovery on government’s massive capital outlays meant that many schemes are not financially viable. It recommended that the main thrust now should be to make sure schemes are sustainable. Weak management and maintenance of schemes as a result of inadequate training also inevitably led to equipment breakdowns and contamination of water supplies, creating hostility in communities who felt they had been misled. One departmental official said on Friday that: “cost recovery is so low that we have sleepless nights about it”.Deputy director general of water affairs, Dr Eugene Mokeyane, conceded that widespread problems plagued the department’s estimated 1300 water projects but stressed: “many of these projects breakdown because communities damage metres”. Water affairs director-general, Mike Muller, is even blunter. “Where schemes are not delivering water because communities have decided not to pay for diesel for pumps, this is their decision. We believe that, on reflection, they will reconsider,” said Muller. “Supply interruptions may [actually] be an essential part of establishing working arrangements and do not necessarily mean that a project has failed.” He added that communities also often rejected water delivery because of perceptions that it was not much better than their traditional water sources and did not therefore warrant payment. “The culture of non-payment aggravates this. Many people are still not properly informed or are misinformed on what their rights and responsibilities are and what the true costs of different solutions are,” said Muller. “These issues are extensively workshopped in most of our projects but this is no guarantee that the often unpalatable information we present will be accepted.”Muller stressed that the studies all concentrated on the country’s less successful schemes that were being run by communities without acknowledging the vast number of very successful water projects handed over to regional water boards and local governments. He added that some of the country’s largest schemes, such as the Moutse/ KwaNdebele scheme which supplies water to nearly a million people, experienced problems before communities at the end of the line often suffer shortages caused by uncontrolled consumption in communities closer to the source of water. “The supply is highly satisfactory for communities close to the source to the detriment of those further away,” he said. Minister Asmal was unavailable for comment. – African Eye News ServiceStudy pin-points weaknesses in celebrated water delivery programmeNELSPRUIT – LEAKY pipes, shoddy workmanship and ignorance are among the biggest enemies facing South Africa’s ambitious drive to supply clean drinking water to its 12-million rural inhabitants. Government has impressed even its critics by bringing water to over 3-million people in five short years but the speed of delivery has in itself created fundamental flaws in the multi-million water schemes.A comprehensive 25 000 word study by South Africa’s largest water NGO, Mvula Trust, and Australian Development Aid found earlier this year that inappropriate technology, shoddy maintenance and poor management by untrained communities was leading to the failure of many projects. The study targeted 21 government and 56 Mvula water schemes that were particularly problematic.Grootdrink, in the Northern Cape for example, is a small community of just 2020 people. But its new multi-million rand water scheme is already under strain because the system was not designed properly, the new pipes leak and residents are unable to afford the new R55 flat rate for water and other services. Many residents who got water on the old system are now without water, while even those who do get water complain that it is contaminated because water collection points that are not kept clean. The new purification plant is itself not well managed and it does not provide clean water.At Izingolweni, 35km from Port Shepstone on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast, another multi-million rand water project operating on pre-paid meters is under threat with residents preferring to use rivers in the area for water. Only R323 of the project’s 7583 families have signed up with the scheme following widespread criticisim that there is virtually no project management and no systematic fault-finding for leaks and other problems. Residents also complain that roles and responsibilities for the project are not defined and understood, and the people feel communication with them has been poor. There is no poverty relief. People have also begun bypassing the meters and are making illegal connections to draw off water.A water project at Sandile in the Eastern Cape is even worse off. There is no water supply to many parts of the community because the main pipeline is broken and water is spilling from it. The water that manages to get through is contaminated. There is no project management and no tariff collection.At Tjakastad near Badplaas in Mpumalanga, residents insist that they are worse off with their new water scheme because the former KaNgwane bantustan supplied water right into resident’s yards while the new system only allows for communal taps up to 500m away from houses. While water purification is excellent under the new scheme, there is no management of the reticulation network except for emergency repairs and water wastage is high. There are also increasing numbers of illegal connections as residents start taking the law into their own hands. – African Eye News Service