President speaks out about South Africa’s water woes

2nd December 2019 By: Natasha Odendaal - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

President Cyril Ramaphosa has warned that drastic measures are required to ensure South Africa’s water security, or the country will face a developmental and economic challenge bigger than its current energy challenges.

A ten-year-plus drought, which has placed immense pressure on water systems, poor water infrastructure and delays in obtaining water-use licences, besides other issues, are holding back economic development, the President said in his latest ‘From the desk of the President’ newsletter on Monday.

The drought has already had a devastating impact on agriculture and communities across South Africa, particularly in the Eastern, Northern and Western Cape, as well as the Free State and Mpumalanga.

“Our existing water systems are already over-exploited as use increases rapidly, owing to population growth and as more homes get connected to water. Combine this with the worsening effects of climate change and we are clearly facing a dire situation,” Ramaphosa said.

“Unless we take drastic measures to conserve water and promote efficient use, water insecurity will become the biggest developmental and economic challenge facing this country.

“Our current energy challenges will seem small by comparison,” he continued, warning that water security was critical in ensuring the wellbeing of South Africans, enabling a healthy economy and accelerating ambitions of industrialisation and mining and agricultural expansion.

Government is already working towards the elimination of bureaucratic barriers, directing the water permit office to reduce the waiting time for water licences, where, he said, significant progress had been made.

Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu last week said the time to obtain a water licence had been reduced from a waiting period of up to three years, to 49 days.

In addition, the National Disaster Management Centre is coordinating measures to alleviate the impact of the drought, including relief projects, such as emergency borehole drilling and water tankers, in affected areas, and the implementation of water restrictions and rationing.

About R260-million was provisioned in response to the drought, with support extended to farmers to buy fodder, reticulate water for livestock and dam desilting.

“Given the severity of the crisis, this amount is woefully inadequate. Disaster management is working with provinces and municipalities to see how they can reprioritise their budgets for relief and recovery,” Ramaphosa commented.

Further, municipalities are installing bulk meters at reservoirs, repairing leaks and burst pipes, throttling water outlets at night to replenish reservoir supplies and upgrading existing water treatment works.

The country’s water infrastructure build is ongoing, while focus will narrow to projects that broaden South Africa’s water resource mix in light of dwindling existing freshwater supplies.

“To ensure our future water security, we will need funding of at least R126-billion for infrastructure,” he pointed out.

“In the long term, especially if the drought persists, we will also have to research technologies such as evaporation suppression, fog harvesting and cloud seeding,” he noted.

Meanwhile, Ramaphosa conceded that “serious accountability and governance issues” persisted in the building of infrastructure and at a municipal level, where water losses were mounting as a result of billing errors, unauthorised use and outright theft.

“Mismanagement of water resources and corruption in the water sector has in no small part contributed to the situation we currently face,” he pointed out.

“This is putting the entire nation’s water security at risk.”

The ongoing Special Investigating Unit probes into irregularities in certain projects will continue, while the Hawks’ National Clean Audit Task Team will continue its probe into some municipalities, where corruption has been alleged.

“Accountability will be enforced as part of restoring integrity to the sector,” Ramaphosa concluded.