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Experts propose private solutions to better capacitate municipalities for effective water management

Strengthening South Africa's water infrastructure

28th March 2024

By: Marleny Arnoldi

Deputy Editor Online

     

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As South Africa starts to experience more extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts and high-energy storms, the sustainability of public water systems becomes crucial; however, municipal mismanagement or lack of maintenance is posing a major risk, a panel of experts agreed in a webinar hosted by Creamer Media on March 27.

With the Blue Drop audit report finding that more than two-thirds of water treatment plants are close to failure, almost half of all treated water is lost through leaks and that only 26 of the country’s 958 water supply systems currently meet the Blue Drop certification level for high-quality water, solutions for climate resilient "water prosperity" becomes crucial.

Presidential Climate Commission climate adaptation lead and panel facilitator Dhesigan Naidoo said the country was not fully taking advantage of the research and innovation that was available, and still tried to solve a twenty-first-century problem with twentieth-century technology and often nineteenth-century operating rules.

Ironically, he explained, this followed a past that was characterised by a human rights approach to water and water as a tool for transformation, as well as an enabler of growth.

Energy & Water Sector Education Training Authority (EWSETA) CEO Mpho Mookapele believes the real risk lies with skills development being undertaken as a tick-box exercise or as an afterthought to infrastructure planning.

For its part of the solution, EWSETA is evaluating the skills required in the energy and water sectors, and works together with other entities to build the necessary capacities to respond to challenges in the country.

She said with infrastructure being such a complex endeavour, stakeholders often got stuck on the correct policies before considering the necessary skills. In fact, Mookapele said policymaking itself required skill, as did the implementation thereof.

She further stressed the need for a clear water vision for the country and a clear outline of the skills that could bring that vision to fruition, lest the country continued running artisanal and skills programmes without seeing the impact of investment in human capital in the country.

“Without investment in people, investment in infrastructure will go to waste,” Mookapele pointed out.

MUNICIPAL ISSUES
Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) director-general Sean Phillips agreed that skills in the water sector were as important, if not more, than the physical condition of infrastructure to ensure high water quality. He had found that the municipalities with the poorest water quality were also those that had the greatest lack of skills in monitoring and controls.

Considering that South Africa had already captured 75% of available water resources, he emphasised the need to use water more sparingly, but, to avoid water shortages becoming an economic constraint, municipalities needed to better manage existing water sources, improve distribution systems and have more effective conservation.

Phillips said there had been a consistent decline in municipal water service delivery in terms of quality and volume, as well as employment of qualified staff, despite more than R60-billion of government grants being provided every year for water infrastructure and capacity-building support.

He added it ws not clear whether the lack of skills in municipalities was owing to them simply not hiring people with required skills or not hiring people at all.

Phillips believes municipalities need structural reform to be run as professional entities, as well as regulatory measures to professionalise the municipal public service. “Professionalisation should also include ensuring that there is no improper involvement of politicians in municipal procurement processes, and that there are stronger minimum qualification requirements for officials working in water management.”

He added that there was no shortage of private sector finance for the water sector, as banks and pension funds stood ready to invest in the water sector, however, municipalities struggled to bring bankable projects to market.

“We have more than R100-billion worth of projects in the implementation phase, of which more than 60% is being financed by the private sector. The challenge, however, is a low level of private sector involvement at municipal level with project planning. Part of the problem is the current public-private partnership and Financial Management Act regulations that take too long for approvals to get in place,” Phillips explained.

PRIVATE PARTICIPATION
Lebalelo Water User Association CEO Bertus Bierman suggested that the R27-billion Olifants Management Model (OMM) Programme could, once proven, serve as a model for the country to follow.

This capital expenditure programme aims to fast-track the construciton of bulk and potable water infrastructure to supply targeted communities and commercial water users such as mining companies and industrial users in the Sekhukhune, Polokwane and Mogalakwena municipalities. 

The OMM Programme is a collaboration between commercial and institutional members – represented by the DWS – and is being funded on a 50:50 basis.

Essentially, the OMM Programme is supporting the construction, operations and maintenance of defined bulk water infrastructure, including the De Hoop and Flag Boshielo dams, and providing operational support to water services authorities where required.

“Once construction finalises in coming years, the OMM programme, as a public-private collaboration model, can be replicated across South Africa in a variety of sectors,” Bierman states.

The OMM Programme will see 200 km of bulk raw water pipelines and 675 km of bulk potable water pipelines being built, as well as associated infrastructure over the next eight to ten years, from which about 390 000 people will benefit. Another 42 000 people, at least, will be benefiting through direct, indirect and induced employment for the duration of the OMM Programme.

Importantly, the model is premised on principles such as shared capital contribution between members, shared control and liability, as well as strong governance to satisfy both public and private sector requirements.

On the municipal front, Bierman says operational readiness training provided by the OMM partners will ensure better oversight and management of the water systems within the municipalities currently targeted in the programme.

Additionally, Lebalelo and its partners undertake various early childhood development projects in schools, including the provision of training tools such as whiteboards, solar power and fibre connections.

Moreover, private companies such as fast-moving consumer goods manufacturer PepsiCo is also contributing to the sustainability of the national water system, including through water infrastructure upgrades at schools in areas in which it operates.

PepsiCo South Africa sustainability manager Sean Power said water supply and quality were equally a risk for the company as for the surrounding communities where it operated.

The company is not only ensuring that it uses less water overall, but that more water is available for use through conservation and strategic water source protection.

Power emphasises the importance of working together with communities to devise appropriate solutions. “There may be best practices or an ideal case reference that exists in the market, but it may not be appropriate for the environment that it is going into,” he explains, adding that the company typically considers the needs of schools and municipalities in its surroundings that depend on the environment in question.

“These are not passive landscapes we can go into and parachute technologies or interventions into, rather, we have to collaborate on what would be a solution for everyone in that space. We need to test the merits for all stakeholders before we can implement best practices,” he states, affirming the company’s openness to partner with municipalities to contribute to the sustainability of South Africa’s water management systems. 

Edited by Chanel de Bruyn
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor Online

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