Supply and Demand

The 1998 National Water Act was heralded by many as the solution to South Africa's considerable water supply problems. But two years on the battle still has to be won, as Ben Moore discovers.

South Africa will be short of water in just two decades unless the country’s population starts to change its consumption habits immediately.

This shocking statement is the stark reality as identified by professor Kader Asmal, former South African water affairs minister and recipient of the 2000 Stockholm Water Prize.

“Our economy is growing. Our climate is becoming drier, so naturally our demand for water is growing too. By the year 2020 the demand for water in our country will be greater than the supply available. We must change the way we use water,” he said at the launch of National Water Week in March 1999.

Post-apartheid pledge

The situation was already pressing when Nelson Mandela took office as president in 1994 – 12M people had insufficient clean drinking water, while 19M had no sanitary provision at all. During apartheid, only the white population was provided with such basic facilities.

As a result the government made clean drinking water and sanitary provisions for every citizen irrespective of race, religion or colour a top priority. It invested heavily in infrastructure. Pumping stations, dams and pipelines for drinking water were constructed.

By 1999 it appeared that the projects were delivering success because the number of people without clean water had been reduced by four million. However, the figures proved to be a false dawn.

It became evident that attention had focused on building the necessary installations, but not on using them or maintaining them. The South African people found themselves back at square one.

Over the last decade, access to water and sanitation has certainly improved, but not enough to keep pace with population growth. As a result the number of people without adequate water continues to rise.

The Government has learnt from its early mistakes. It is not enough simply to supply water – sustainability must be the backbone of future development.

Water supply projects must employ appropriate technology, sound maintenance, management procedures and training techniques to enable a wide range of skills to be gradually transferred to local communities. Without this bottom-up approach, projects are doomed to failure.

The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry is spending $155M a year on water provision. The money has been targeted at establishing initiatives in four of the country’s poorest provinces – Eastern Cape, Kwazulu Natal, Mpumalanga and Northern Province – where 80% of people lacked access to water.

The favoured approach to providing water quickly has been the BOTT system. In Eastern Cape, the township of Peddie is at the centre of a BOTT scheme backed by Lyonnaise des Eaux. A consortium, which has been set up as a private-public partnership, is generating an annual turnover of $15.6M.

The BOTT schemes are primarily projects in remote areas where there has never been any supply network. People traditionally had to collect their water from rivers.

So if a community wants to support and maintain a water supply project then commitment is vitally important. This is because an initial fund (often 10% of the future annual local O&M cost) must be collected.

Collection is the most sensitive issue in South African water supply initiatives because payment must be organised from people not used to paying. Committing a regular sum for something previously available free from a river has proven to be a difficult concept for many South Africans to agree to. An average household might be expected to pay between 2-5% of their income if the suggested allocation of 25l/d is consumed.

The key problem is that payments seen as unnecessary by villagers in remote townships are vital for continued service provision – if the payments are too low then insufficient revenue is collected to maintain the service.

National studies have indicated that people are only prepared to pay if they get value for money, otherwise projects are vandalised, bills remain unpaid and illegal connections are made.

However, communication is equally important because poor communication at local level can lead to distrust which undermines project viability.

Long term compromise

Some critics argue that the Government went too fast in seeking to provide water for all, with the result that project sustainability was sometimes compromised. Certainly future BOTT projects should offer flexibility and sufficient time to establish a sound relationship between all parties.

And as a result of tensions between central government and local leaders, progress has been slow. In fact some ‘homelands’ people are receiving less water than before apartheid.

It was indeed a brave path chosen by South Africa’s politicians six years ago, but unattainable promises were made which have only succeeded in feeding even higher expectations.

As the country begins to tackle the issue of sustainability, the folly of meeting short-term political objectives at the expense of lasting improvements to water supply and quality of life is clearly evident.

The cost of sustainability

Rural water delivery schemes are in serious disarray, partly through flaws in the way government implemented the projects but also because rural communities refuse to pay for water. But the collapse is not entirely the government’s fault, with some communities guilty of vandalism and water piracy.

Sinthumule residents in Northern Province have crippled a $7M supply project by destroying water meters and breaching pipes while making illegal connections to separate villages. Communities in Mpumalanga are also refusing to pay even minimum fees for their water, fatally undermining the financial sustainability of the entire water delivery programme in the region.

Elsewhere, the scheme in Grootdrink, Northern Cape, is under strain because the system was not designed properly – pipes leak and residents are unable to afford the $0.80 flat rate for water. Many residents who got water through an old system are now without water, while those who do get water complain that it is contaminated because collection points are not kept clean.

At Sandile in Eastern Cape, there has been no supply to many parts of the community because the main pipeline is broken and water is spilling from it. Here there has been no project management and no tariff collection.

To tackle these situations, incumbent water affairs minister Ronnie Kasrils is considering a scheme to offer South Africans a basic amount of water free of charge. The concept is that people only have to pay for consumption over 25l/d, on a sliding scale which would charge heavy users a much higher price per unit.

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