South Africa's broken water infrastructure a ticking time bomb - expert

There are growing concerns around access to water and sanitation in many communities across the country, with many issues pointing to aging infrastructure and the poor maintenance thereof.

Khayelitsha residents protest outside the Cape Town Civic Centre on 25 March 2020. Picture: Jarita Kassen/EWN

JOHANNESBURG – As residents in Gauteng brace themselves for 54-hour water cuts by Rand Water, and some in the North West have been subjected to brown, murky water coming out of their taps - an infrastructure expert said South Africa’s aging water infrastructure was a ticking time bomb.

Gundo Maswime, a lecturer in the civil engineering department at the University of Cape Town, said municipalities could not afford to maintain their water infrastructure.

He said rural provinces such as North West, Limpopo, and the Eastern Cape were also culprits of appointing unqualified people to manage this service.

Maswime said the problem did not lie with legislation, adding that the country’s legislative and policy framework were adequate, but there were bold decisions that must be taken by government.

“We have got a formula that allocates money between province, national and local government. The formula gives 44% of all the revenue raised to province, and then gives 45% to national government and what you are left with is what funds local government.”

He said while the assumption, when devising this formula, was that local government would be able to raise its own money through rates and taxes, this had not been the case.

“More than half of the municipalities in the country are in some sort of financial distress, yet when we make changes to the formula, we are making changes on how to distribute the little that's left to fund the local government.”

The district development plan has been punted as the solution to the disjointed efforts of the three spheres of government, but Maswime said it was an admission that the inter-governmental relations framework had failed.

“Unfortunately, the district development plan does not have any legal standing, beyond that it was adopted by Cabinet. So, you will find very soon that some municipalities, which are led by other political parties, might refuse to participate in the model.”


The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) in the North West said it had not received much cooperation from municipalities and the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) in the province, in addressing growing complaints about water services.

The commission said the collapse of local government in the North West was reflected in the nature of complaints they had received, where communities did not get basic services such as water and sanitation.

Provincial manager of the NW SAHRC Osmond Mngomezulu said: “You have presentations being made by Cogta to the provincial legislature and the National Assembly, describing the state of local government in the North West province as having collapsed or in a state of paralysis. Out of the 22 municipalities, 10 are described as dysfunctional. That tells you that local government in the North West is in a crisis.”

Mngomezulu said they approached several stakeholders after local municipalities failed to implement their recommendation and gave effect to residents’ constitutional right of having access to services.

“There has been largely non-cooperation by various municipalities, which is why we ended up engaging the then MEC for Cogta, Salga and engaged district municipalities directly with a view to alleviate the plights of communities.”

Mngomezulu said they had resorted to litigating against municipalities, as in the case of the Madibeng Local Municipality, but they worry that this may not be sustainable given the volume of complaints from communities.

“Even if the commission wanted to litigate, it would be so difficult against the municipalities in respect of all of the communities because there are so many.”

The Madibeng matter relates to a case called the ‘Klipgat C’ - where the commission’s probe found that the municipality had violated residents’ right to access to water, following which they directed Madibeng to provide water to the residents of Klipgat, but the municipality failed to comply.

“We spent time trying to enforce implementation of that report and the municipality just did not cooperate, resulting in the commission instituting legal proceedings in the Pretoria High Court.”

Madibeng was ordered to provide water on an interim basis, but to also devise a long-term solution to the supply problem in that area. The SAHRC said after rolling out Jojo tanks, the municipality failed to comply with the rest of the order.

“We are at a phase where we have now instituted contempt proceedings against the leadership of the municipality. We are hoping to find cooperation because once we go the route of contempt, those who are failing to implement the court order may even face jail time.”

Mngomezulu added that some officials hide behind the legislative scheme, which makes provision for interventions by the provincial and national government.

“When you approach the Department of Water and Sanitation in terms of the Water Service Act, you are told that local government is an independent sphere of government and you have to deal with them and if there are challenges, the provincial government should intervene. At provincial government, you are told these are big projects that will require funding, which resides with the national Department of Water and Sanitation.”

Maswime said the problem would worsen before it got better.

He likened infrastructure to a car: “If there is regular, proactive maintenance, it becomes a classic and it will work like its new as a classic car. But, when there is a lapse in maintenance, the infrastructure becomes dilapidated, so that is the equivalent of a ‘skorokoro’ – and the ultimate fate of a skorokoro is to die. We have started to see this in some parts of the Vaal, North West and Vembe in Limpopo.”

Maswime said perhaps the complete collapse was what it would take for government to review the funding and management of water infrastructure.

“We are going to reach a point where there will be a catastrophe because some of these pipes are crossing public roads that are used by cars; secondly a state where bacteria from sewage will contaminate drinking water and then we will have fatalities and people getting sick. That is the worst that will prompt the government to look at it as a policy window to go back and look at all these formulas.”