Network meltdown

2008-02-05 00:00

EVEN before the electricity crisis developed last month, many people were aware that it was brewing. Eskom itself had warned the government a decade ago that if its plans for expansion were not implemented, the country would run out of power by 2007.

The Koeberg fiasco which plunged much of the Western Cape into darkness and chaos in the winter of 2006 was a warning of things to come. But the responsible Minister of Public Enterprises Alec Erwin merely hinted darkly at sabotage.

It was widely known through interaction with Eskom employees that the haemorrhage of experienced staff and inadequate maintenance meant that the infrastructure was running down, at the same time as the boom in both residential property, as well as malls and office parks, was stretching demand to breaking point. Over two million new homes have been built in established suburbs in the past decade, not to speak of the state’s policy of taking electricity to previously disadvantaged citizens.

Other key aspects of the national infrastructure are also known to be running down. There are indicators that the state is no longer able to effectively monitor and manage its vast infrastructure of dams, pipes and water treatment facilities. For instance, 43% of dams managed by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (Dwaf) allegedly have safety problems and require urgent repair, and R180 billion is necessary to replace old water service infrastructure countrywide.

A further illustration of water woes is the recent fiasco in which half of the contestants in the recent Dusi Marathon suffered from the dreaded “Dusi guts” from the heavily contaminated river, thereby placing the famous race in jeopardy. And as bad as the pollution was the obfuscation of the local authorities, desperate not to reveal the truth lest the start of the race be moved from Pietermaritzburg.

What about roads? One does not have to be a civil engineer to know that incessant patching of potholes is a stopgap substitute for scheduled and regular resurfacing of the road network. And as every motorist knows to his or her cost, in many instances even the potholes don’t get filled in.

Maintenance and renewal is expensive. But restoration after a complete meltdown of the infrastructure — be it of electricity, water or roads — is even more so. What are the responsible ministers doing about it?

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