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Major water project delays while citizens suffer

The number of people whose taps no longer provide a reliable water supply grew by almost two million between 2011 to 2015, a problem particularly in rural areas and spreading to urban areas. PHOTO: Supplied

The number of people whose taps no longer provide a reliable water supply grew by almost two million between 2011 to 2015, a problem particularly in rural areas and spreading to urban areas. PHOTO: Supplied

South Africa is the 30th driest country in the world with estimates the water demand of the country will outstrip its’ supply by 2030. Mike Muller, visiting adjunct professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, says expansion of the Vaal River System, the biggest and most important water supply scheme in the country, is over five years late with Nomvula Mokonyane, Minister of Water Affairs and Sanitation, at the centre of the unfolding tragedy.

It was reported in July that Mokonyane was said to have delayed the R26 billion Lesotho Highlands Water Project by a year to enable the involvement of a company said to be a funder of the ANC in the project. It is said the project which South African taxpayers will fund is aimed at building a 165m dam, 38km tunnel and will generate hydroenergy to ensure continuous supply of fresh water from Lesotho to Gauteng.

Muller says billions of rands are at stake in a story that threatens the lives of all water users as the effective functioning of the Vaal system underpins a large part of the country’s economy and around 35% of the population. He says its failure would have disastrous consequences for lives and every year’s delay costs at least R500 million.

“The main reason for the latest delay is Mokonyane spent two years changing the rules and governance of the project. At a most basic level, the number of people whose taps no longer provide a reliable water supply grew by almost two million between 2011 to 2015 which is a problem particularly in rural areas but is spreading to urban areas as well,” he says.

According to Muller, in most cases, it has been shown the problem is bad management, not a shortage of water. He says in October, Mokonyane’s department took out full page advertisements  boasting  the auditor general had given them a ‘clean audit’, however in November the auditor general highlighted the department as one of the offenders for billions of rands of irregular expenditure.

According to the professor, Mokonyane claims irregularities were due to drought despite the fact they occurred after three years of normal to above average rainfall in the province concerned. He says meanwhile officials in the national government and water professionals have been horrified to learn in the Free State, the minister and mayor of Mangaung are pushing ahead with proposals to build a R2 billion pipeline to bring more water to the city from the Gariep Dam on the Orange River.

Muller says technical studies by the Water and Sanitation Department show it is three times more expensive than other alternatives that could meet the city’s needs for the next 20 years. He says if this project goes ahead, it will reduce funds for water provision in the province by more than a R1 billion.

“Mokonyane faces mounting criticism for her handling of water matters and her department has reportedly been the subject of investigations by the public protector and the police’s Special Investigating Unit. When money is wasted there will simply be less available to provide services to those who do not yet have them,” says Muller.

Leon Basson, Shadow Deputy Minister of Water and Sanitation, says since her appointment in 2014, Mokonyane has been obstructive. He says she has had no plan to fund the R300 billion needed over the next four years to stop a full-scale collapse of water infrastructure in South Africa.

“It is in the interest of every South African that the department’s funds be spent on refurbishing South Africa’s decrepit water infrastructure and ensuring all communities have access to clean drinking water. We cannot afford political interference and misconduct when it comes to our country’s water needs,” says Basson.

However, in November Mokonyane defended her department after it was identified as one of the offenders for irregular expenditure in the report presented by the auditor general on national and provincial audit outcomes for the 2015/16 financial year. She said the country was experiencing the worst drought in decades which necessitated a humanitarian response by the department to support communities in distress.

“This led to public funds being re-directed from certain projects towards emergency drought interventions and the irregular expenditure as a result. Additional water was released from the Lesotho Highlands Water Project in consultation with the Lesotho government resulting in additional costs being incurred on the part of the department,” said Mokonyane.

The minister said high capacity, motorised water tankers as well as mobile water tankers were rolled out nationally to provide basic water for household consumption and pollution. She said these and many other emergency interventions led to an increase in irregular expenditure totalling R1.3 billion.

At the Portfolio Committee on Water and Sanitation in Parliament in October Mokonyane said it would be misleading to suggest the water challenges facing the country were caused by the delay in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. She attributed the severity of the drought due to unfavourable climatic conditions and the intensity of the El Nino phenomenon that hit the country causing a visible knock on dam levels resulting in water shortages and South Africa experiencing its lowest rainfalls in 95 years.

“The project was never meant to be operational in 2016, the envisaged time period for the completion of LHWP Phase II is 2025 and this project will ensure the country is better equipped to deal with effects of climate change. The LHWP Phase II, being the largest water project of its kind due for implementation in the world currently, is set to guarantee benefit the national, regional and international interests of  South Africa and Lesotho,” said Mokonyane.