The governance of drought

2016-02-29 12:21
In line for precious drops of water
The late afternoon sun sets as residents of Khula village outside St Lucia gather around the pump in their daily ritual to collect water.

In line for precious drops of water The late afternoon sun sets as residents of Khula village outside St Lucia gather around the pump in their daily ritual to collect water. (Ian Carbutt, The Witness)

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President Jacob Zuma thought the drought serious enough to mention it during his State of the Nation Address. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, in presenting the budget on Wednesday, put the drought alongside “global uncertainties” as a major constraint to economic growth.

If it’s so important, then what’s with R1 billion allocated for supposed “drought relief”? Gordhan said it would be used for water provision, agriculture support, transport and feed for livestock.

Austerity budgets, which is what he said this one was, are supposed to generate efficiency. In the context of drought, one is talking about efficiency in the governance of water. What’s the track record on this?

The first point to be made is that South Africa has a highly variable climate, it is defined by its water scarcity, projections suggest that demand will outstrip supply by 2030, and therefore there is no such thing as an unexpected shock to the system. Even the current El Nino drought, which is being blamed for everything, could be seen coming from seasons away.

An example of how low a priority water can be, is to be found just before the current back-to-back drought years, in the 2013-14 Integrated Development Plan for Jozini in KwaZulu-Natal. Community halls and sports fields in abundance, with millions of rands allocated in the budget. Lots of small poverty alleviation projects, all with money. That’s good. But then, Budget item: 80 bore­holes, across all wards. Money allocated: zero. Among the unfunded projects listed, water is a priority request from all 20 wards, either in the form of dams, or pipes, or water tanks, or a windmill. They languish in the budget column where the money didn’t get to.

Jozini is the driest, hottest area in the province. And yet, the IDP notes: “Jozini has 17 water schemes, but most of these schemes are not properly maintained and are therefore dysfunctional. In areas not covered by the schemes, or where the schemes are dysfunctional, there are boreholes. Unfortunately, most of these boreholes are non-functional, due to poor maintenance.”

StatsSA says 90% of households there earn less than R1 600 per month: it is they who depend on the Umkhanyakude District Municipality to deliver water to Jozini.

And then came the drought. So far, R502 million has been spent on what has been passed off as drought relief in KwaZulu-Natal, which was the first province to declare a drought disaster (its second in a row). According to the KZN Integrated Drought Management Report for February, R157 million (31,4%) of this has gone to refurbishment and upgrades.

What this means, in the case of the hapless Umkhanyakude Municipality (which was put under administration last year), is repairing pumps (including hand pumps), laying electricity cables to the pumps, recommissioning dry boreholes, drilling new ones, spring protection and buying JoJo tanks. None of which most people would consider as being drought responses. The money has also gone to water tankers, which is what researchers refer to as a “backstop” measure, the most expensive and desperate of responses. They make up 16% of this expenditure. Experts argue that conservation and optimisation of water use, in line with plans and policies, are cheaper, more efficient and more reliable measures to make sure of water supply, even, perhaps especially, in times of drought.

Oxfam research into the drought and its impacts suggests that the problems in KZN are in large measure because plans were made and never implemented. It would appear that a key problem has been a reticence by management within the Department of Water and Sanitation to approve projects that would have brought greater water security — perhaps due to a lack of technical understanding.

At the start of the drought, and anticipating Gordhan’s criticism of the neglect of maintenance in favour of new projects, water resource planners within the Department of Water and Sanitation were already saying “there has been a huge pressure on infrastructure build because that has been where the money has been, and a deep neglect of maintenance. Almost-new systems, such as pipelines, have been allowed to fail, and are replaced with more new infrastructure, rather than maintained.”

Finding money for the drought has been a question of finding money to fix what was allowed to break, and not on “relief” as commonly understood. Gordhan could not resort to a contingency fund, because, as former Finance minister Nhlanhla Nene told the nation in October 2015, the R5 billion in reserves had been spent on wages for public servants, leaving nothing for emergencies. In the event, that was a case of government taking money away from those whose precarious livelihoods have been devastated by the drought, and giving it to itself.

Half (R502 million) of the R1 billion “reprioritisation” money comes from the Department of Water and Sanitation to drill boreholes and buy water tankers, which sounds very much like what it had already been given money to do. A bail-out, in other words; the very opposite of austerity.

The government tries hard to frame the drought as an act of God, which places all of us at the mercy of the heavens for water.

Perhaps that is why Water Affairs and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane, at the time when five provinces were declaring drought disasters and calling for emergency relief, called prayer meetings. Nothing to do with good governance. It’s all God’s wish.

• Dr Yves Vanderhaeghen and Dr Donna Hornby are undertaking research into the drought and its impacts for Oxfam South Africa.

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