Basic services run dry

2019-07-31 06:02

LAST year, the possibility that the city of Cape Town might run out of water made news around the world. No sooner had drastic consumption cuts and the blessing of rain pushed “Day Zero” into the future, did the army have to be sent in to deal with major leaks of sewage into the Vaal River, which has been supplying water to South Africa’s industrial heartland since not long after gold was discovered in the region.

Earlier this year, Astral Foods, a big poultry producer, had to pump its own water from the Vaal because the municipality could not supply enough.

In addition, of course, water problems in Makhanda have been popping in and out of the news since 2013, at least. And Johannesburg is subject to restrictions on water usage at the moment.

But for millions of people in villages all over the country, water shortages are part of daily life.

Sometimes when water is available it is too contaminated to drink. Notoriously at Bloemhof in 2014, in North West Province, possibly as many as 15 babies died when they drank filthy water.

Elsewhere in the same year in the same province, in a township near Brits, four people died during protests against interruptions to their water supply.

Some of the people in Brits said the interruptions were deliberate; contrived by municipal officials wanting to generate business for friends who had turned into water vendors.

This, it appears, is a continuing problem. In April, Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Zweli Mhkize voiced the suspicion that people in business with political links were sabotaging pipes in Vryburg so that they would be called in by the municipality to bring in tankers to supply water to communities.

“An ANC source” in Mpumalanga said infrastructure was deliberately neglected or tampered with so that there was a need for the mobile distribution of water.

Thus does corruption percolate down from the very top levels of the state to some of the poorest communities.

Thus does the municipal incompetence recently chronicled (yet again) by the auditor-general hurt grass-roots South Africa.

In water, as elsewhere, failure to maintain and/or extend infrastructure means that the cost of doing so is far beyond the capacity of the increasingly impoverished yet simultaneously increasingly profligate ANC government.

Because they have to buy water by the bucket, sometimes from people who bring it to them by wheelbarrow or donkey cart, some of these communities end up paying for water that government policy entitles them to receive for no charge.

In villages in every one of the nine provinces of South Africa, taps frequently run dry and stay that way for months on end.

At the University of Cape Town some years ago, students had the luxury of choosing to throw faeces at a statue of Cecil Rhodes. In towns and townships along the Vaal, and in villages elsewhere, faeces are not for fun but are a hazard frequently present in the water supply.

Scrutiny of news reports shows that these problems occur so frequently as to be endemic.

According to Statistics South Africa, just over 30% of South African households in 2017 said the water was not safe to drink, not clear, not good in taste, or not free from bad smells.

Stats SA has reported that the number of households with access to piped water in their dwellings or outside or nearby, rose from 8,94 million in 2002 to 14,36 million in 2017.

Even so, this situation has left more than three million people without access to a “basic water supply service”, while 14,1 million “do not have access to safe sanitation”.

Moreover, according to a report that was published towards the end of last year by the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS), satisfaction with water and sanitation services has been “eroding steadily”.

Citing Stats SA data from a 2016 community survey, DWS said that in 2005, some 76,4% of households regarded these services as good, but that this proportion had dropped to 63% households by 2016. This was “lower than it was in 1994”.

The survey on which DWS reported had asked households to identify the “top five challenges” facing their municipalities.

Some 0,87 million households identified “violence and crime” as the top challenge, 1,20 million said “inadequate housing”, 1,71 million said “cost of electricity”, 1,96 million said “lack of or inadequate employment opportunities”, and 2,68 million said “lack of safe and reliable water supply”.

The DWS report said that access to water is a basic human right, and that access to sanitation “is a critical element in the right to dignity and to an environment not harmful to health or wellbeing”.

Access to these services had improved “significantly”, but “reliability” was “currently declining”, it said.

What a surprise.

• John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.

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