YONELA DIKO: Municipal water infrastructure - the elephant in the room


On 6 August 2020, Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, Lindiwe Sisulu, handed over the Randfontein Wastewater Treatment Works after it was revitalised and re-engineered so that the effluent it discharged met the quality standards of the Departments specifications. It was an expensive project that went through two phases of technical revitalisation and refurbishment.

South Africa has just over 824 wastewater treatment facilities, and according to the Green Drop Report, (as early as 2013), almost half (49.6%) of wastewater treatment facilities were in a critical or poor condition requiring urgent attention. Over the years, this has resulted in untreated sewage discharging into water streams and destroying the quality of water.

Municipalities are classified as water services authorities and are constitutionally required to provide water and sanitation services to their communities. Municipalities, however, have continued to battle providing these basic services of water and sanitation in the last 26 years, resulting in community revolt and political unrest as many communities find themselves without reliable supply of water for months on end, and in some cases, years.

How do we explain the dire state of municipal water and sanitation infrastructure and the seeming inability of municipalities to maintain them?

Every nook and cranny of South African land falls under a municipality's care, and is therefore entitled to access to adequate municipal water and sanitation. All too often, however, some of our people find themselves without access to the convenience of tap water and must make-do fetching water from rivers and wells, which themselves are exposed to much contamination upstream.

Although there have been improvements in the insurmountable task of providing universal access to water and sanitation over the years by building new infrastructure, the problem has been in maintaining that infrastructure, with municipalities blamed for adopting a reactionary approach to maintenance rather than a consistent and continuous one.

The first challenge for our municipalities is that they are not generating enough revenue from the services they provide. In 2018, 112 municipalities did not have enough money to meet their expenditure needs for the financial year, and it was recorded that only 14 municipalities had clear and viable recovery financial plans. The major reason for this dire state of municipal finances is consumer debt. It is said that while access to water and sanitation have been improving over time, the number of households who have been paying for piped water has been declining. By the end of 2018, the consumer debt was just shy of R150 billion for municipal services owed to municipalities. This means municipalities are providing services which are not being paid for and at some point, they will run out of capacity to provide free services, which is the reason many municipalities are unable to provide, at least consistently, adequate basic services such as water and sanitation for their communities.

This then cascades to municipalities being unable to pay their own debts. Municipalities owe R14 billion to water boards and the Department of Water and Sanitation for the provision of bulk water services. This has implications for other municipal services too, such as electricity and the ability to service that debt to Eskom.

Consumer debt, however, is but one of the reasons municipalities are unable to provide adequate water and sanitation services, consistently and reliably for all their residents. Almost every year, only about 13% of the 257 municipalities are receiving clean audits. In 2018, over 73% of municipalities had material compliance findings on supply chain management. This means despite consumer debt, municipalities are themselves financially reckless with the money that they do have.

The other critical area that has been noted by the Auditor General is the lack of proper and adequate skills-set in municipalities. There are no technical and expert skills in municipalities to ensure infrastructure is built and maintained. In 2018, there were about 50 000 vacant funded posts in municipalities, mostly of engineering and expert skills, giving municipalities a vacancy rate of just less than 15%. The problem is even more dire in rural municipalities who are battling to fill technical posts.

The lack of skills and expertise means there is no proper planning and adequate attention to maintenance of infrastructure until something breaks down, and by then the infrastructure is usually ruined. Most municipalities, as the Auditor General has pointed out numerous times, do not have maintenance plans, and generally do not conduct an regular assessment on the condition of their infrastructure to be able to properly plan for them and put money on it. Without planning and budgeting, municipalities are vulnerable.

Without the skills, without planning, the funding that is transferred by national government into municipalities ends up being under-spent and sent back to the national fiscus and/ redirected into other non-infrastructure expenditure. Where projects are started, this results in poor workmanship, along with unmet targets and delays that eventually lead to poor infrastructure that collapses regularly. The result is that municipalities today lose almost a third of their water supplies on what is termed non-revenue water. This is defined as water that is lost through physical leaks, commercial losses like billing errors or theft, and what is termed unbilled authorised consumption like firefighting. This again means a third of money that is supposed to be going into municipal coffers does not.

Municipalities need quality infrastructure for their local economies. The intervention by national government is critical because infrastructure is important for local economies and such interventions should not only be funding but also capacity to ensure municipalities are able to deliver on their basic services. South Africa's municipalities, particularly non-metro municipalities, generally do not have adequate infrastructure to provide sufficient and reliable water supplies to its communities.

Our municipalities have been chastised, rightfully so, for having a reactionary approach to its infrastructure maintenance than a consistent, regular and proactive one. As early as 2010, the National Treasury indicated that the capital cost of replacing aging infrastructure was R103 billion for water and R66 billion for sanitation.

Since then, there have been multiple new water infrastructure projects, with the Lesotho Highlands Water Project that supplies Gauteng, the Nooitgedacht Low Level Scheme that treats water from the Gariep Dam feeding into systems that supply crucial areas including the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality, as well as the Giyani Bulk Water Project. These are notable projects but they've also been plagued by delays and cost overruns.

There has also been very poor work with regards to sanitation. This is because of poor alignment between availability of water and installation of waterborne sewerage systems.

The infrastructure interventions therefore that the Minister is doing are critical however they need to be accompanied by conditions for municipalities at the handover which must include maintenance plan and budget for that plan and a show of technical capacity to maintain such infrastructure.

If we don’t do that, then we are building infrastructure at such high capital costs only for them to be lost at maintenance. Its unacceptable.

Yonela Diko is spokesperson for the Ministery of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. He writes in his personal capacity. You can follow him on Twitter @yonela_diko