By: Helene Le Roux
2nd February 2007
The evaluation of the country’s public infrastructure, published by the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (Saice), showed South African infrastructure to be very good in some instances, but wanting and even downright unacceptable in others.
Divided into nine main sectors – water, sanitation, solid waste management, roads, airports, ports, rail, electricity distribution, and hospitals and clinics – and 21 subsectors, the state of South Africa’s public infrastructure scored an unacceptable D+ on average.
Top of the list of Saice’s findings are extensive maintenance and refurbishment backlogs.
Since the advent of South African democracy in 1994, the government has focused on providingbasic infrastructure for those without running water, sanitation, healthcare, transportation or electricity.
Saice president for 2006 Sam Amod saysthat while government has made significant progress in providing these services, much of the good work is going to waste, as the public infrastructure that underpins service delivery is not being kept up.
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Dr Kevin Wall, who was Saicepresident in 2001, assisted Amod in compiling the report.
The skills shortage
One of the most pressing challenges facing the upkeep of South Africa’s public-sector infrastructure is an acute shortage of skills.
In particular, a recent Saice survey indicates that more than a third of all 231 local municipalities do not have a single civil engineer, technologist or technician.
There are more than 1 000 vacancies in local government for engineering practitioners.
South Africa has only half as many engineers as doctors, while Australia, the US, Western European countries, China and India have a similar number of engineers to doctors.
Saice’s research indicates that, in general, developing countries have more doctors than engineers, whereas the opposite is true in developed countries.
Developing countries seemingly fail totake into account that engineers contribute toimproving social health.
The providing of clean drinking water, propersanitation and better shelter prevents diseaseand sickness, while the supply of electricity and transport also improves the quality of life.
Maintenance investment imperative
Amod says that, in light of government’s plans to invest almost R400-billion in the country’s infrastructure, it is imperative that South Africa does not continue to build only to permit the work to deteriorate. “Neither can we continue the culture of ‘patch and pray’ that typifies too many of our maintenance activities. We need adequate budgets and maintenance-management plans for existinginfrastructure and new additions to the infrastructure asset base,” he warns.
Chronic underspending on public-infrastructure maintenance is reflected in the condition of South Africa’s drinking water systems, sani-tation, roads, airports, ports, electricity reticu-lation, hospitals and clinics, the D+ averagehiding a multitude of sins.
For instance, while water quality is deemed good in the metropolitan areas, scoring a C+, water quality in small towns and rural areas is frequently unacceptable, and rated as D–. The report also points out that the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry’s (Dwaf’s) “well-maintained but ageing bulk infrastructure” is reaching the end of its useful life and requires refurbishment or replacement.
It also indicates that 43% of dams have safety problems and require urgent refurbishing. Moreover, it expresses “serious concerns” about funding. Dwaf’s infrastructure is awardeda D+. South Africa’s large airports and heavy-haul freight lines achieve B ratings, which is thehighest score. On the other hand, the condition of sanitation and wastewater-treatment infrastructure in areas other than the major urban areas, and low-volume low-priority rail lines, score Es, which is the lowest rating.
The state of South Africa’s sanitation and wastewater-treatment infrastructure is ofparticular concern to Saice as it can affect health and wellbeing of the population. The institution’s report card finds that there are “serious problems” with the management of many wastewater-treatment works.
The report card also indicates that wastewaterleakage and spillage is much too high and that there are frequent problems with on-site sanitation.
These problems are attributed directly to inadequate operation and maintenance capacity, and a shortage of skilled personnel.
It is estimated that when maintenance isdelayed for one year, it costs three to six times more.
Wall proposes that authorities need to make a commitment to the maintenance of infrastructurethroughout its useful life when building a new project.
This is in contrast to current common practice where the emphasis is placed on capital works to construct new facilities, and maintenance is not viewed as a priority.
As a result, insufficient budgets are allocated to maintain the infrastructure.
Moreover, many new facilities are not designed for low maintenance and are poorly built, whichpush up maintenance costs.
The day can be won
While the lack of maintenance and refurbishment in some areas is reaching critical levels, Amod and Wall are insistent that the situation can be retrieved with the allocationof sufficient budgets and skills bythe authorities responsible for timelyrepair and replacement of infrastructure.
However, they point out thatintervention on a national level is only part of the solution. “Many of these authorities canimplement solutions themselves, which many of them are not currently doing, or not pursuing to the fullest extent,” Wall says.
In particular, wastage can be prevented, if, forexample, the significant leakage of treated water in many areas is tackled.
A small investment in infrastructure repair and refurbishment can be paid back – in some instanceswithin months – in terms of the savings on the payments for bulk water purchases.
Another solution suggested by Amod and Wall is that local authorities cut back on otherexpenditure and, instead, invest in infrastructure maintenance and refurbishment.
Such investment will assist them in providingcost-efficient services and increasing theirrevenue streams.
Wall says that an improvement of the current situation requires a change of behaviour, whichincludes government’s viewing maintenance as an essential part of its responsibilities concerningthe provision of economic and social infrastructure.
Changes in public policy along these lines are already evident with government’s approvalof the National Infrastructure Maintenance Strategy (Nims) Amod says that the publication of Saice’s report card supports Nims as the strategy contributesto better-informed decisions for infrastructure development and maintenance.
The report card has been received with maturityin South Africa, and there has been a general acceptance, including by national government departments, that the organisation’s findings are credible. “We are encouraged by the response, andbelieve that a constructive relationship willsupport Saice in assisting government in improv-ing the state of South Africa’s infrastructure,” Amod says.
The value of the report card
The idea to publish the state of public infrastructure on a report card, which Saice hopes to do yearly, is not unique to South Africa.
The American Society of Civil Engineers and the British Institution of Civil Engineers have been publishing similar report cards since the late 1990s.
And Canada and Australia have also taken up the practice in order to evaluate and provide insight into the state of their local public infrastructure.
Amod selected the production of a South African infrastructure report card as one of the presidential projects for his term of office, anendeavor in which Wall – who first proposed the compilation of a public infrastructure report card during his tenure as Saice president in 2001 – provided significant support. Last year, Amod visited the American Society of Civil Engineers and the British Institutionof Civil Engineers, and was advised andencouraged by these organisations to publisha local report card.
Saice consolidated the significant body of available research concerning the state of local infrastructure into the report-card structure with Wall’s assistance.
While no new research was conducted, thereport included the recent findings of nationalgovernment departments, such as Dwaf,independent academics, and the private sector.
A panel of experts then moderated the report card, and assigned the final grades to the differentsectors.
The result reflects the expert perception of South Africa’s civil engineering professionals.
Amod and Wall say that Saice is the mostappropriate organisation to conduct a project of this nature, as it is a learned society without commercial ties.
The organisation received neither sponsorship nor a grant for the project. “We believe that the outcome of our endeavouris a candid reflection of the current state of South Africa’s public infrastructure. “The aim is to be constructively critical,” Wallsays.
Interpreting the results
Viewed on an A, B, C, D, E scale, with A being very good, B good, C fair, D poor and E very poor, C is the middle ground between fair orsatisfactory, or poor and unsatisfactory.
Wall points out that in interpreting theresults, it must be taken into account that the achievement of a D+ average is far from reflectingany form of disaster, and improvement to C is a reachable goal. He explains that, while there is room forimprovement in most categories, for the timebeing, the aim is not to achieve As, as it would put too much pressure on South Africa’s limited resources and would not be sustainable.
Instead, the goal is to implement practicalremedies – such as putting into practicemeasures to eliminate waste and spillage – to improve the condition and performance ofSouth Africa’s public infrastructure.
The trends reflected in future report cards will reveal whether South Africa’s publicinfrastructure is heading toward excellence or breakdown.
Edited by: Helene Le Roux