Billions to avoid looming water crisis

2013-03-23 00:00

EDNA Molewa might be short in stature, but she believes she has the heart and will to turn around South Africa’s crumbling water infrastructure.

South Africa’s water minister is at the forefront of a resource crisis that will have dire political consequences if not managed correctly. And the crisis is unfolding right now.

This year already, at least 10 municipalities’ taps have run dry.

And in many rural municipalities, the water remains undrinkable as local infrastructure collapses. Critics are calling water South Africa’s next Eskom disaster. This week, Molewa revealed that 1,58 billion cubic metres of supplied water went unaccounted for each year.

But Molewa is calm, her words precise, when asked if South Africa is on the edge of a precipice.

She said: “We do not have a crisis, but we could have a crisis. I know people are using the word ‘crisis’. But what they are saying is that it’s important to plan. As indeed we have planned.”

But plugging the country’s ageing and leaking water supply systems will cost billions. To supply clean water to South Africa’s growing population, including piping it from far away water schemes, will cost even more.

And in between are small municipalities where taps run dry for months or where the water is simply too foul to drink.

Molewa is all too aware of the struggles of rural municipalities which can’t supply clean water and of the political tensions and service delivery protests which can erupt when there is none.

She punches the air while telling of how the department established rapid response teams in the water department to help struggling municipalities, while also approaching the treasury for money to fund a new programme called the interim water supply programme.

“We come in and try to give assistance. If the municipality does not want to listen, we issue directives. And then as a last resort, if the municipality still resists us, we take them to court.”

On the contentious issue of mines, economic growth and wetlands, she said she is talking to the mining minister about no-go areas and “mining in wetlands is simply not a place to mine”.

Still, Molewa knows that she has a mountain to climb to fix South Africa’s water supply, and that the precipice is never far away. “We must respond now, so that we don’t get to that crisis. We can still save the situation.”

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