Gauteng and NW Province

Water shortages in South Africa are spreading….

MAFIKENG and Nelspruit are already experiencing water shortages but a third provincial capital, Bloemfontein, could soon be facing supply problems because of serious capacity problems at its chief water source, experts warn.

Water shortages from Ermelo and Nelspruit in Mpumalanga to Mafikeng and Brits in North West and Brandfort in the Free State were due to a lack of infrastructure maintenance, a consultant to the state’s water infrastructure company said.

Experts have been warning for a long time that South Africa’s backlogs of about R2.66bn in water infrastructure maintenance annually and R33bn in electricity infrastructure maintenance threaten the economy and social stability.

Trans-Caledon Tunnelling Authority consultant Richard Holden said there was a general lack of infrastructure maintenance and of qualified engineers in metro and town councils with the knowledge and understanding to properly run water works.

“It’s a general malaise … there is no technical expertise and no control in small towns over how much water people use … The Nelson Mandela Bay metro’s chief engineer did not have his contract renewed and left. He was the last engineer employed by a council,” Mr Holden said.

Independent water expert Anthony Turton said the water supply problems were the unintended consequences of government policies and that in many places water infrastructure had “completely broken down”.

The South African Institution of Civil Engineering’s 2011 Infrastructure Report Card warns of a “culture of complacency”, pointing to “substantial maintenance noncompliance” across South Africa.

Mr Holden said while the problem had been limited to small towns, it was notable that two provincial capitals — Mafikeng and Nelspruit — were experiencing problems, although Nelspruit’s water shortages were due more to unexpected population growth than poor maintenance.

Mr Turton said a third provincial capital, Bloemfontein, could soon have supply problems because its chief water source, the Welbedacht Dam, was so silted up that it was left with just 10% of its original carrying capacity and there was no “significant” plan to fix the problem. Also, a major pipeline had reached the end of its design life and was bursting regularly. Instead of budgeting to replace it, the Mangaung metro council had adopted a “patch and pray” stance.

“It’s the Eskom crisis all over again … and the business risk is that while large corporations can, and are, increasingly providing their own water supply, small and medium-sized companies can’t do that,” he said. It is calculated that load shedding by Eskom cost South Africa’s economy about R50bn.

In 2008, Mr Turton was suspended from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research just before he was to give a presentation in which he was to warn that South Africa could be headed for a crisis in the water sector, which could fan social instability. He was to speak more about water quality than supply, but both are dependent on well-maintained infrastructure.

Several experts have said that maintenance backlogs can be attributed, in part, to the government’s bid to correct apartheid-era inequalities, which has meant a focus on building new infrastructure at the expense of maintaining existing infrastructure.

The percentage of the population with access to an improved water supply source has risen from 83% in 1990 to 91% in 2008, but this access is becoming meaningless in a variety of places due to compromised water quality and intermittent supply caused by poor maintenance. Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa has admitted that up to 25% of people who have access to a tap do not have an “acceptable level” of service.

Both Mr Turton and Mr Holden said neither the government nor its citizens had yet realised that a reliable supply of good quality water was costly, and that the situation was set to worsen.

The South African Local Government Association was aware of the maintenance problems and was working on an “infrastructure refurbishment fund” that would act as a “stokvel” or “collective revolving fund” that municipalities could contribute to and benefit from, infrastructure services executive director Mthobeli Kolisa said. “We are formulating the mechanisms of how it would work … The areas of biggest need are town central business districts and old suburbia, and they have consumers that will probably be able and willing to pay,” he said.

Mr Kolisa said the problem of ageing infrastructure was a “legacy issue” created by the government’s focus on expanding water access.

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