Securing midlands water

2008-12-11 00:00

“AGAIN! No water for many”, “Bisley’s burst pipe woes” and “Crisis in Richmond” proclaimed recent newspaper headlines as residents of Pietermaritzburg and many surrounding areas experienced interrupted water services.

To find out why there seem to be ongoing problems with the supply of potable water, The Witness approached the municipal manager of uMgungundlovu District Municipality, Sbu Khuzwayo, who took up his responsibilities in February this year. He outlined the difficulties the district body faces and what it has already done to address the problems.

He said that the challenges associated with water service provision date back to long before 1994. “It hurts me when people say that they are so used to bad service that they don’t bother to complain, especially in rural areas. What was missing, critically, was a maintenance plan — there was absolutely no plan at all. As someone who comes from a planning background, I shudder when I think of it. How did they think they could run a service as critical as water without a maintenance plan?

“There was a culture of crisis management and reacting to problems as they arose. Rather than waiting for problems to happen, we need to create a culture of proactive daily monitoring and maintenance.

“The distribution of water used to be the responsibility of local municipalities, but it was transferred to districts in 2003. This district did not have the capacity to carry out this function, so we entered into service agreements with local municipalities to continue providing drinking water while we built our capacity. We are gradually taking over from local municipalities and plan to be in full control by the end of June 2009.”

Seven local municipalities fall within this district municipality: the Impendle, Mkhambathini, Mpofana, Msunduzi, Richmond, uMngeni and uMshwathi municipalities. It covers almost 9 000 square kilometres and is mostly rural, apart from the urban centres of Pietermaritzburg, Howick and Richmond. According to the uMgungundlovu District Municipality website, the population of the area is 872 717, most of whom live in rural areas. “This means that the district authority is largely responsible for rural development — that is the business we are in,” said Khuzwayo.

He explained that all staff of local municipalities who perform functions related to water have been transferred to the district, as well as the assets and liabilities. However, the staff are still based in local municipality offices. Their supervisors now report to the district, which has also deployed additional staff to provide supervisory support and ensure a smooth transition. All supervisors meet once a week in the district offices to report back on activities at their local level.

“We have now introduced a maintenance plan and have appointed private service providers to maintain the delivery infrastructure like piping and pumps, until the district is ready to take over this responsibility. We have created three clusters that the contractors maintain: Richmond/ Mkhambathini, Mpofana/Impendle and uMngeni/uMshwathi. Msunduzi Municipality is itself a water services provider and therefore does its own maintenance.

“The district recognises the need not only to refurbish existing infrastructure, but also to install new plant, like pipes. This is particularly relevant in areas where there has been population growth like Richmond and Mpophomeni. We aim to channel as much money as we can to water and sanitation and other core functions. We have tweaked the current budget as much as possible to ensure that we budget for this in future.

“We have also worked to build strategic partnerships with relevant organisations because we cannot carry out this task on our own. We need to work with organisations that are in touch with the situation on the ground, like Umgeni Water, Duct [the Duzi-uMngeni Conservation Trust] and local water committees.”

Khuzwayo also identified the need to “take ownership of the problem of a lack of skilled staff. With the moratorium on employment of new staff until the completion of the financial recovery plan, we have had to find an alternative solution. Again, we have outsourced to the private sector to meet our needs in terms of skilled staff such as operators, engineers and artisans.

“I am very excited that we have also entered into a partnership with the Umgungundlovu Further Education and Training (FET) College to build a pool of skilled staff to supply us with artisans. In early November, 30 new trainee plumbers were due to be deployed in local municipalities to help the district respond to the challenges of water supply. They will serve their six-month practical with us and we hope to be able to employ the best of them at the end of that time. This is a creative solution and shows how we are trying to find new solutions to old problems.”

The uMgungundlovu District Municipality website states that the body aims to “provide all the people in the municipal area with basic water services that are sustainable and financially sound.” Khuzwayo explained that what is meant by “basic water services” is not piped water to every household, but access to clean, safe water no further than 200 metres away. “We know that piped water for everyone is not possible, especially given South Africa’s scarce water resources. However, ensuring that no one needs to walk further than 200 metres to a standpipe is an attainable goal.

“The national target is universal access to water and sanitation. Currently, we are at about 85% and 60%, respectively, and we aim to keep on improving on that until we reach 100%. We aim to achieve, at minimum, access for everyone to a water standpipe within 200 metres by 2010.”

Asked what he would say to disgruntled residents who are fed up with interruptions to their water services, Khuzwayo said: “Our aim when we take over this function completely will be to provide a reliable service, and if we do not, they must let us know. I invite residents of the district municipality area to use our district-level call centre or their local municipality call centre to report any problems. We have also appointed what we call ‘champions’ at the local level. These are people responsible for water and sanitation operations and maintenance. Members of the public are welcome to contact them also [see box for phone numbers].”

What has been achieved?

Khuzwayo believes important strides have been made in addressing the problems associated with water service delivery. “The organisation’s mind-set is where it starts and we have begun to change that. We have to have a mind-set that says we take ownership of the problems and we will do what is necessary to deliver this service. We have elevated water and sanitation as a district function to the highest level. We have the full support of the district mayor and executive council (Exco) and it is now a standing item on the agenda of the Exco. This is important as it is crucial to have political support behind us.

“The district was also seriously under-spending on water and sanitation, so we have been able to fast-track many projects that will give people access to water.” These include:


• Funds allocated to the Greater Eston Bulk Water Scheme, including construction of two reservoirs and four pump stations and installation of piping.

• A total of 330 standpipes installed.


• Funds allocated for upgrading the Nzinga River abstraction and treatment works, and construction of a pump station and bulk supply network and raw and clear water reservoirs.

• Water reticulation laid to 1 633 households.

• A total of 152 standpipes installed.


• Funds allocated for construction of reservoirs, bulk pipeline and reticulation pipes.

• A total of 228 standpipes installed.

Who to report problems to

To report problems with water in the uMgungundlovu District Municipality area, contact the following numbers:

• District call centre: 033 897 6991 (working hours); 0800 864 911 (24 hours); customer care 033 897 6845.

• Local municipality call centres: same as numbers above.

• Local municipality “champions”: uMshwathi — Zakhe Gumede, 082 907 2706; Mpofana — Duncan Fowler, 071 170 0761; uMngeni— Ken Phillips, 082 809 8595; Impendle — Buhle Msomi, 082 909 0758; Richmond and Mkhambathini — Jabulani Dlamini, 082 909 0757.

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