South Africa needs to urgently and proactively address its looming water crisis, and while some movement is being seen around infrastructure projects, SEW-Eurodrive MD Raymond Obermeyer questions why it has taken government so long to act more proactively.
He said that the deteriorating state of South Africa’s water infrastructure assets has been well documented and the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) is well aware of the extent of the crisis.
“South Africa’s water infrastructure is in a woeful state after decades of mismanagement and inadequate maintenance,” he highlighted.
Over 50% of South Africa’s 1 150 treatment plants are in a poor and critical condition with 265 in a state of decay and the Iris dashboard data reveals that 75% of wastewater treatment plants run by municipalities achieved less than 50% compliance to minimum effluent standards in 2020.
“In addition to poorly managed water infrastructure, the country has also allowed many of its rivers and dams, including the Vaal river and the Vaal and Hartebeespoort dams to become polluted in recent years,” he added.
The most recent South African Institute of Civil Engineering’s Infrastructure Report Card classified the country’s bulk water resources infrastructure and water supply for non-urban areas as at risk of failure and blamed the deterioration on insufficient maintenance and neglect, funding shortfalls and a depletion of skills at senior levels.
“The reality is that South Africa’s water challenges are not going to be solved overnight. It takes many years to build water infrastructure and is expensive to fund. Given the constrained state of government’s finance, there is the very real risk that funding challenges will delay these projects. As a result it may very well be public-private partnerships that will fund, implement and manage these water projects.”
“We need measurable action when it comes to managing water. A key element of this is to better manage our scarce water resources sustainably with infrastructure that is fit for purpose. Should we fail, the Eastern Cape will not be the only province contemplating a day in the not too distant future when the taps run dry,” he warned.
His comments come as the Eastern Cape’s dam levels remain perilously low after a multi-year drought. Some dams servicing Nelson Mandela Bay are at record lows and the province’s main water supplier, Koega dam, is currently at less than 4% capacity, of which only 1.5% is usable water.
The Impofu dam, the second largest in the province, is at 16.64% capacity.
Severe water restrictions have been imposed in the province to delay a potential Day Zero from occurring.
While the Eastern Cape’s water shortages are primarily the result of a six-year-long drought, he said the situation has been exacerbated by the poor management of water infrastructure.
“A well-maintained and sustainable water and sanitation system is essential for any functioning economy. Water scarcity has a profoundly negative influence, impacting economic productivity, livelihoods, safety and security,” said Obermeyer.
Managing South Africa’s water resources sustainably and responsibly is critical.
“However, it finally appears that government have started to acknowledge the scale of the looming water crisis with the accelerated establishment of a National Water Resources Infrastructure Agency and the prioritisation of 11 water and sanitation related infrastructure projects valued at R106-billion,” he commented.
Four of these projects, valued at about R68-billion, are ready for investment with construction expected to start in the next two years.
“For several years, there have been calls for the establishment of a National Water Regulator, based on the theory that the DWS cannot be both a player and a referee in this space.”
“Encouragingly, it appears that we are moving closer to the establishment of a water regulator with both National Treasury approving the idea and the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission Council formally proposing its establishment.”
In addition to public-private partnerships, Obermeyer concluded that South Africa needs to implement Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies to better monitor and control water distribution networks.