Come hell or high water

President Jacob Zuma and King Letsie III launch the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, Polihali Dam phase 11, at Polihali, Lesotho.
President Jacob Zuma and King Letsie III launch the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, Polihali Dam phase 11, at Polihali, Lesotho.

Dear Comrade President

Although this matter is urgent, I deliberately waited until the local government elections were over before writing. I did not want to muddy the waters. And it is about water that I am writing to you.

You will remember what it was like when we lived in Maputo in the 1980s and parts of the city often went for weeks entirely without water.

We don’t want this to happen in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni.

Yet that is the danger we currently face.

Unless our cities stop growing, our factories stop producing and our public services shrink, we will need more water to meet their needs. In a few years, we will not be able to guarantee that supply.

It was easy to understand the cause of Mozambique’s problems.

The country was being deliberately weakened by the systematic attacks of the apartheid regime; always poor, it also had to cope with natural disasters like cyclone Domoina.

In South Africa in 2016, we do not have any of those excuses.

We know where our future water supplies should come from.

Through our cooperation in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), Lesotho allows us to turn the Orange River around so that it flows down the other side of the mountains.

The LHWP’s dams and tunnels divert its water so that, instead of flowing down to Aliwal North, it goes to the Vaal Dam. From there, people from Siyabuswa to Rustenburg, Sasolburg to Soshanguve benefit from it. And we pay Lesotho well for the use of its territory.

The next stage of the LHWP to meet our growing needs has been planned for years.

But as we learnt with electricity, plans must be complied with and the work done on time. A senior Chinese government official recently told African governments that development success comes 10% from planning and 90% from implementation.

African implementation is typically weak and South Africa is guilty as charged.

We are already more than five years late with the implementation of phase 2 of the LHWP.

Even if we start tomorrow, the project will not be able to deliver water much before 2024. So we are gambling against the weather Gods here and they seldom favour those who are not prepared.

As a result, if there is a serious drought in 2019, municipalities across Gauteng and neighbouring provinces will have to introduce extreme water restrictions.

This will hurt people in many ways. Apart from the inconvenience and extra costs incurred as people go in search of water, economic activity could be curtailed and many jobs will be lost.

Unlike electricity, it is not easy to simply switch water on and off. Once supplies are cut off in a district, it can take days to restore normal supplies.

So why are we dilly-dallying? Why have we delayed the start of this important project for so long?

There is convincing evidence that the recent delays are largely due to certain government leaders trying to manipulate the process.

They may report to you that they are trying to ensure that there are appropriate empowerment arrangements, but that won’t wash.

The arrangements have been in place for ages. The real question is who will benefit from them.

It has also been suggested that this is an attempt to raise money for the ANC. Of course, this would be against all the rules, to put it mildly.

But perhaps it is argued that there are always occasions on which we have to break some rules.

You won’t remember, but back in the 1980s, you caused me to break UN regulations.

I lent you a car from my UN-funded “improved latrines” project for a weekend, for which I could have been accused of corruption – abuse of public vehicles was a constant problem in Mozambique.

But the ANC had no functioning cars in Maputo that weekend and I was told that you had to cross the border for an urgent meeting.

And, since my project was administered by the Mozambique government with our friend Mahykete, Minister Pascoal Mocumbi, in charge, I reckoned that he would sort out the consequences if the issue arose. He understood the challenges.

And this is how we should consider the current challenges. Before we break the rules, we should consider the circumstances and the consequences.

We know that the ANC is an expensive organisation to run. But if we have to delay the LHWP to raise money for the ANC, we are missing the point.

We have just seen that money does not always buy votes. But just imagine the consequences if Gauteng is brought to a standstill ahead of the 2019 elections because citizens are queuing for water.

No amount of money, T-shirts and concerts will buy their love and support.

Some people who live in rural areas might say that it is only fair that urban areas should share the suffering of life without reliable water.

That would be short-sighted, not least because much of the money needed to pay the grants that people need to live and to subsidise the municipalities on which they depend comes from the cities.

And water from Lesotho supplies not just Gauteng but parts of Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West and the Free State.

It is not even clear that the ANC will get the benefit from any contract manipulations. The organisation has become very tolerant of cadres who use their positions for accumulation as long as some of the benefit is shared with the party.

Some people believe that this is a necessary and inevitable part of our social transformation. But we have to draw the line when individual accumulation threatens the fabric of our society and economy.

At present, the evidence suggests that the delays are caused by people trying to ensure that dirty money flows into private hands.

As an activist, but also as an ordinary citizen who depends on Johannesburg’s system for my water, my request is that you intervene personally, as a matter of urgency.

Set up a presidential task team to take charge of the LHWP and direct its implementation until completion. That team should also prepare to manage the potential consequences of the delay.

Leadership demands strategic foresight and decisive action. For the water supply of Gauteng and surrounding provinces, we are already very late.

But action is essential if the ANC, in general, and your administration, in particular, are not to go down in history as the party of drought, dissent and decline.


Your Comrade

Muller is former water affairs director-general and member of the National Planning Commission; fellow of the SA Institution of Civil Engineering; and visiting Adjunct Professor, School of Governance, Wits University


What action should President Jacob Zuma take to ensure sufficient water supply for SA?

SMS us on 35697 using the keyword WATER. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

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