There is an urgent need to ensure that appropriately qualified and experienced water professionals are appointed to plan, develop and manage South Africa’s water resources and services, says Water Institute of Southern Africa (WISA) technical director Mike Muller.
“Water management is complex. Ministers, members of the executive council and mayors are not qualified to undertake it, and they should not be expected to. Their job is to ensure that the right people are appointed, and then to monitor their performance and hold them accountable if they fail.”
Muller argues that acting officials often focus on serving the interests of political leaders, rather than the technical aspects of improving water infrastructure and security.
He notes that this lack of technical focus is found in many local municipalities, some of which struggle to provide services, such as water, effectively at times. “This is a challenge because according to the constitution, providing water services is a local government responsibility.”
herefore, WISA believes that a strategy is needed to allow for water services to be handed over to a competent organisation if a municipality cannot cope or if a municipality is consistently mismanaged.
“It is estimated that the majority of households in the 27 poorest municipalities do not have safe or reliable supply of water,” says Muller.
He remarks that a possible option could be to use local water boards as service providers in cases where the water boards have the capacity to undertake the work.
Another alternative that could be considered for smaller water systems is to allow for community management, as residents can then take responsibility for their own water and sanitation services, adds Muller.
However, this will require that municipalities hand over the funds received from government to run the water systems, which they are reluctant to do, he notes.
Muller further highlights that national government has not reported systematically on the safety of water supply since the last “Blue, Green and No Drop” report was published in 2014.
Many WISA professionals were also involved in the publishing of this report, which reviewed the state of water treatment, wastewater purification and water loss reduction in the country, and are ready to do so again if the reviews were to be reinstated.
Muller notes that WISA is engaged in discussions with stakeholders about the expansion of the function of water boards and other institutional options, as well as encouraging government to improve its monitoring of water services.
“WISA is encouraged by proposals to professionalise the public service and protect public officials from undue political pressure. We will be making submissions to the Public Service Commission, which has begun the reform process.”