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MPs warn of water crisis

2010-04-16 13:55

Cape Town - Opposition MPs on Thursday warned of a crisis in the state of South Africa's water affairs, pinning the blame for it on mismanagement.

"Your department has let South Africa down, and seriously so," Democratic Alliance MP Annette Lovemore told Water Affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica.

Lovemore, speaking during debate on the water affairs budget vote in the National Assembly, called on the minister to show "vital, critical and urgent leadership to address the current shocking level of mismanagement of our water resources".

Ground and surface water quality in South Africa was deteriorating fast, and people had died after drinking polluted water, she said.

Poor raw water quality

"Animals in the Kruger National Park and ecosystems across the country are under threat. Tourism is compromised by the eutrophication of rivers and dams.

"Water treatment costs are escalating due to poor raw water quality.

"Farmers are unable to irrigate with polluted river water. The availability of water to sustain economic development and human and environmental health is diminishing.

"Opportunities are being seriously undermined," Lovemore said.

Eutrophication is an increase in the concentration of chemical nutrients, and the reason many reservoirs around the country often appear bright green.

United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa told MPs they were sitting on a time bomb.

"The current budget does not address the need to bring the previously neglected areas of the country onto the same level in terms of water infrastructure.

"We are sitting on a time bomb. This is a water-scarce country with a growing population and outdated infrastructure designed to serve a small portion of citizens who live in the privileged areas."

Holomisa said government had failed in the past 15 years to bring the infrastructure in underprivileged areas on a par with privileged areas.

Reason for delivery protests

A drive through provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape revealed the "apartheid topography" of these regions. Access to clean water was a basic human right, but it did not exist in many rural communities.

"Billions are being spent on expanding or maintaining infrastructure inherited from the old regime. On the other hand, the infrastructure where the majority live is sorely neglected.

"This lies at the root of the violent community protests that we witness across the country. People are not blind to the disparities," Holomisa said.

Lovemore angered Sonjica, prompting her to rise on a point of order and object to Lovemore's quoting from the Green Drop Report, a national survey of municipal wastewater treatment plants that - after several delays - is now set to be released on April 28.

"I still have to give authority to release the report," Sonjica said.

But the minister's objection was over-ruled, and Lovemore informed the House the document had found sewage treatment plants around the country, with few exceptions, were in dire straits.

Bad advice

According to it, only 7.4% of the plants surveyed had actually achieved Green Drop status, while the balance did not comply fully with the requirements for safely and properly treating sewage.

"Alarm bells, minister, are ringing. Regrettably, the competence to respond to these alarm bells simply does not exist," Lovemore said.

She further told Sonjica she was getting bad advice.

"Your internal advisors, with a few exceptions, are letting you down," Lovemore warned.

Her DA colleague, Gareth Morgan, called on Sonjica to apply the provisions of the Water Act and get strict with non-compliant municipalities and not merely issue them with non-compliance notices.

"The Act does allow for the provision of notices and directives to allow a transgressor to rectify the non-compliance, but the big stick of criminal charges against municipalities that continually transgress is being avoided by the department," he said.

Morgan also warned that eutrophication levels in South African dams were among the highest in the world.

"Our eutrophication levels are among the highest in the world, and there are at least 19 major dams that are either eutrophic or incipient eutrophic," he said.