DWS continues prior year’s strategic interventions

2nd May 2023 By: Natasha Odendaal - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) will continue to progress many of its initiatives throughout 2023 to ensure South Africa gets back on track in terms of water security.

Speaking during a briefing to the Portfolio Committee on Water and Sanitation on Tuesday, Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu said that the DWS was trying to be as practical as possible this year, having learnt in the last financial year that there was a need to prioritise infrastructure, both by the DWS and its various agencies and water boards.

“This is important for water security. There is a need to plan ahead for storage of water and other activities related to supply of water, as well as increasing the potential for us to supply water to communities,” he comments.

Among the priorities for the year ahead, the department is focusing on projects that should have been completed years ago as well as intervening where it can in water services management.

DWS director-general Dr Sean Phillips said that the department’s strategic priorities had “not changed much” from the last financial year as the challenges still remained.

“There has been good progress made in several areas and additional focus on those areas where we have made less progress over the last year,” he told the committee during the DWS briefing on Budget Vote 41 and the Annual Performance Plan for the 2023/24 financial year.

An area of heightened focus for the department in the year ahead was strengthening water services at municipal level, where, he said, the DWS had not made as much progress as it would have liked.

The interim blue and green drop reports, through the ongoing monitoring of municipalities, indicate that water services are still, in general, deteriorating in terms of their reliability.

A priority is to strengthen the role of DWS in regulating, supporting and intervening in municipalities where municipal water and sanitation services are deteriorating to arrest the decline and increase reliability of municipal water and sanitation services.

“That is probably the most important focus for the department in terms of the need to make more progress in the current financial year, says Phillips.

“We realise that just planning around bulk water and water resource management issues, and not dealing with water services management, which is done by municipalities, is self-defeating,” Mchunu notes.

“As much as it is not our direct responsibility, as per legislation, the call from the people around the county is very strong about water services. We have felt obliged to intervene in the area of water services management.”

The DWS has also made good progress in accelerating the implementation of a range of major projects to augment national bulk water resource infrastructure, including Lesotho Highlands Phase 2, uMkhomazi and Mzimvubu.

Many projects that were previously delayed for long periods owing to blockages in the financing and planning stages had now been “unblocked” and were now in the implementation phase, said Phillips.

“An area where we need to pay more attention, if we want water security in South Africa in future, is the diversification of our water mix,” he continued, noting that a strategic priority of the department was to guide and lead the development of other water resources, including groundwater and desalination.

Meanwhile, the establishment of the National Water Resource Infrastructure Agency (NWRIA) is underway.

The NWRIA, for which consultations are being undertaken, will assist with enabling high amounts of finance to be raised without necessarily requiring government guarantees or investments.

Another priority for the DWS is strengthening regulatory interventions to address pollution of the environment and protect communities from wastewater, with the department set to introduce standardised regulatory processes across all the provinces for regulatory actions to be taken where there is pollution of the environment and where municipalities are not meeting the minimum norms and standards.

Further, to increase private sector finance and skills participation in the water sector, progress has been made on the establishment of the Water Partnerships Office.

“We have a very high level of private sector investment in national bulk infrastructure through the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority, and that will increase with the NWRIA. However, the big gap is at municipal level where there needs to be more private sector involvement. That will also be a major focus in terms of trying to facilitate more projects at municipal level,” says Phillips.

In terms of water use licence turnaround times and promoting transformation in water use, good progress has been made since the last financial year, with the department getting closer to reaching 100% licences being processed within the 90-day target set by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Meanwhile, if South Africa is to have water security, the country needs to reduce its high water consumption and use water more sparingly, in addition to building dams and diversifying its water mix, as there are limitations to the amount of water that can be supplied through capturing surface water or groundwater and desalination.

There is a need for the DWS to guide and lead increased water use efficiency and demand and conservation management, including addressing non-revenue water at municipal level and improving billing and revenue collection across the water value chain.

“The debts owed by municipalities to water boards, and subsequently from water boards to DWS, are escalating at an alarming rate and pose a major threat to the future sustainability of the water sector,” Phillips pointed out.

“That has to be a major priority for us.”

“We also want to continue with our process of institutional development and institutional consolidation in the water sector through the establishment of the catchment management agencies and the transformation of irrigation boards into the water users associations, which is very important for transformation in the sector.”

Further priorities include completing the reconfiguration of the water boards, which started in 2021 and is expected to be completed in June; completing the implementation of the new structure; developing a new water services branch; and improving infrastructure procurement.

“We are also taking measures to ensure that this financial year we reduce our expenditure to zero. Our irregular and unauthorised expenditure has decreased hugely from the levels that it was at four or five years ago and it remains the focus for us to eradicate all irregular expenditure,” he commented.

“We have made a lot of progress in irregular, fruitless and unauthorised expenditure. Our aim is to eliminate that altogether. We are not there yet, but we are getting closer,” Mchunu added.

The DWS will also prioritise the eradication of under expenditure; maintain strengthened financial and human resources controls; continue to ensure progress with all financial misconduct disciplinary cases; and strengthen its external communication.