Minister aims to blow crisis out of the water

2013-03-22 16:30

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 says: “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.

“We can’t just sit around and not project the various possibilities into the future.”

But plans to avert the looming water crisis do not come cheap.

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.

“I am the custodian of water in South Africa. The buck stops with me. I can go and hide behind the autonomy of municipalities and the independence of the different spheres of government. My responsibility to ensure South Africans have clean drinking water can’t be neglected.”

Molewa 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.

This new project, ready for rollout this year, will specifically target hotspot municipalities all over the country to get their water up to scratch again.

“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.”

She shakes her head at the errant municipalities, her mouth a firm line as the interview moves to the struggling Nala Local municipality in Free State.

Nala serves the towns of Bothaville, Kgotsong, Wesselsbron, Monyakeng and surrounding farms and the water, only available sporadically, is undrikable.

“We tried to get work done there, we tried to get our teams to help there, now we will take them to court. But we have to show that we tried everything possible to get the towns functioning again,” she said.

Everything possible includes political interventions, says Molewa.

“We also talk to the premiers of the different provinces about the struggling municipalities and how they can assist. Because if the town and region goes up in smoke, it is the premier that has to deal with the political fallout.”

Last year, one of Molewa’s biggest crises involved Carolina, Mpumalanga, and its water polluted by mines.

Violent protests broke out and the water department had its hands full giving Carolina residents access to potable water again.

Molewa has to dance on eggshells around the issue, with huge pressure on her department not to hamper economic growth by refusing mines water permits.

She shrugs off the concerns.

“You are right, we do have pressures, but we stay firm on the principles of sustainable development. Yes, we need to grow our economy but not at the expense of our people and environment. I need to put my foot down, and I do when it is necessary.”

But she also stresses the cooperation between the different departments.

“I think right now, communication between the different ministers has never been better. I’m talking to the mining minister about no-go areas, saying that mining in wetlands is simply not a place to mine.”

She says the minerals’ department shares their plans as well as their concerns.

“We now have the mechanics to be proactive and not act afterwards,” she says.

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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