Water: A long drop from freedom

It's that time of year again. Elections, the big one. And from this eternal spring of angst comes a torrent of topical issues, not least of which is water and sanitation.

The disenfranchised voiceless, faceless people morph into a dozen seething mobs, erupting from sores such as Mothutlung and demanding action, again.

The opposition, without any other plan to overthrow the rulers of the day, is quick to stand to attention.

In this noise, I close my eyes and imagine the last moments of Michael Komape. Yes, he has a name other than "that boy who died in a pit latrine in some place we will never see". I feel sick to think of his last moments.

I suppose it's ironic that a pit latrine is called a long drop, for it sure feels a long way for our humanity to have fallen.

Is the long drop from freedom too close for comfort?

But enough tugging on the heartstrings, let's look closer at this issue from the proverbial coalface. As an engineer in the water sector I get around a fair bit, not every day, but I get to see places that treat your water, places that receive your sewage and I deal with the people tasked with doing so.

Firstly, the old regime, the vorige regering, apartheid and all its cousins, ensured we had pockets of humanity in far-flung places. It forced people to stay on open stretches of land which were just close enough to get up at 4am in the morning to get to work on time. These places did not have taps or waterborne sewage.

While the aforementioned regime did, however, leave behind some pretty well-engineered infrastructure, sadly they also ensured that a lack of education for the masses meant that only a handful of people could keep it in good shape.

And then to make it even harder, we allowed those who did have the skills to leave employment in municipalities and related structures to make space for a never-ending stream of cadres and connected people to take up space on the payroll. We even gave it a name... affirmative action, simply replacing one evil with another and proudly boasting about it.

The parasite of corruption soon took residence on this fat cow. It sucked long and hard, so hard in fact that where the cow ends and the tick starts is now indistinguishable.

Let's look at Mothutlung specifically, where three pumps were not working, two of which had been out of service for two years. These were probably the pumps delivering treated water from the potable water plant to the reservoirs and users. I doubt they are very big, they can't be since they were refurbished in double quick time when the lead started flying.

Has anybody asked, no demanded, why the first two pumps were broken for so long? Is anybody going to be held liable?

I urge the media to go there and take photographs of what the water treatment plant looks like and ask somebody in the know to comment.

From the pumps that draw from the rivers or dams, through to the water plants themselves and their pipelines into towns, all are falling apart from basic neglect.

Local governments shout 'we don't have money' but how much money does it take to sweep out cobwebs and to tighten a bolt before the drip becomes a torrent that washes the pipe itself away?

Now let's talk water quality. South Africa has a standard called SANS 241 which stipulates what our water should contain once treated. I am willing to bet the plant that supplied water to these pumps does not come close to complying. Bring me a sample and we can publish those results.

I have not been at a single plant in the last few years that I would classify as sufficiently operable. Not one. The rural towns are the worst, but if you can talk your way into the big water utility in Gauteng, pop into the Vereeniging works and ask why the sedimentation basins are sludged up. And surely a PhD is not required to remove the weeds growing in the cracks in the concrete channels? That's just the surface of the problem. If your neighbour isn't mowing his lawn, odds are he isn't sorting the inside of his house out either.

I can take you to a sewage plant that was upgraded before it was ever used and to the best of my knowledge, is still not in use.

I can show you a location where sewage is flowing straight through the undersized plant into the environment while the already paid for plant sits idly in the supplier's warehouse awaiting installation instructions.

It's like this all over the place, small plants allowed to fall apart, literally rusting away in the sun.

We didn't have a lot when the khaki boys left town, but we had something. Surely we should have tried harder to keep it going for as long as we could.

Keep an eye out for the deluge of tenders in the coming months for 'upgrading and refurbishment' of various water-related infrastructure on an urgent basis.

I don't think calling for tenders for 'fixing what we allowed to fall apart' would get the municipal manager promoted to provincial government.

As soon as the elections are behind us, the clamour around which appointment to office is worse will drown out the water issue, again.

Brave is the person who is prepared to find some connected party to enter into a venture with to tender on a project that is poorly scoped for a client who is not only ill-informed, but will take months to pay you, if ever.

Then there are the communities that fight and bicker amongst themselves to get a claw into the local spend of a project, to the extent that they hold the project hostage... senseless!

I could never understand why 'the man' spent so much of my money upgrading his security, but now I suspect that keeping the mob from drinking from his 'fire water reserve' may take a bit more than outdated ammunition and a shove out the back of a police vehicle.

F Jones is a pseudonym for the engineer who wishes to remain gainfully employed.