27 October 2013 14:00 Yolandi Groenewald
Municipalities don’t have the technical capacity to maintain infrastructure
Many parts of Grahamstown in Eastern Cape were without running water for 11 days recently in the third protracted breakdown in water supply this year.
In August, Rhodes University was on the point of having to shut down due to health problems, such as diarrhoea and infections, which arose after there had been no water there for almost two weeks.
A broken dam pump, which is more than 60 years old, cut off the running water in the town. This is just one example of a crisis municipalities across South Africa are facing.
Kimberley in Northern Cape recently had an interruption to its water supply due to infrastructure problems. Residents of Krugersdorp (Gauteng), Rustenburg and Potchefstroom (North West), and Bloemfontein (Free State) also struggled without water this year. There are persistent shortages in other parts of North West and Mpumalanga.
According to a survey conducted by the DA, 26 Free State towns currently have no running water or have had constant supply interruptions.
Pieter du Plessis, the general manager of JoJo Tanks, said demand for tanks has exploded over the past five years, as municipalities’ water services began to collapse.
JoJo has now set up eight factories across SA to supply tanks. Most municipalities simply don’t have the technical knowledge to maintain infrastructure.
Of the more than 230 municipalities, 79 have no civil engineers or technicians, and only 45 have civil engineers.
There are more civil engineers serving the zoo infrastructure in Auckland, New Zealand, than in 86% of South Africa’s municipalities, according to Allyson Lawless, a former president of the SA Institute of Civil Engineering (Saice) and the author of Numbers and Needs – Addressing Imbalances in the Civil Engineering Profession.
The skills crisis is blamed on the massive exodus of municipal engineers over the past 20 years.
Out of every seven engineers who worked for municipalities in the 1980s, only one remained, according to Dr Chris Herold, an engineer and owner of Umfula Wempilo Consulting.
This was partly due to frustration and disillusionment among municipal engineers over political appointments in management positions with supervision over technical functions.
Many engineers emigrated, and the private sector also lured municipal engineers away with big salaries.
Fewer and fewer technicians have been trained.
Serious problems have developed with the asbestos and cement water pipes that were laid in the 1940s. Water has started to erode the cement in the pipes.
This leads to small municipalities losing, on average, 72.5% of the water pumped, according to a recent survey published by government.
An average of 36.8% (1.58 billion cubic metres) of SA’s water pumped by municipalities is lost. This is equivalent to the yearly supply of Rand Water, SA’s largest water utility.
Pipes generally have a lifespan of 50 years, Herold says. There is very little replacement being done in smaller municipalities; and in Joburg, there’s a 10-year backlog.
Government has recently launched a strategic integration project specifically to address these delays, accelerate water licences and build programmes, as well as put better sanitation in place.
But about R50 billion must still be found to finance the project, and there are also concerns about whether government has the necessary expertise to carry out its plans. In the water affairs department, where water infrastructure is planned, there are only seven engineers among the 48 senior managers.
In May, only 78 of the 280 civil engineering posts in the department were filled, and about 47% of the chief engineers will retire over the next five years, according to figures from Saice.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has said South Africa will experience “great water stress” in the next 15 years, especially in inland cities.
South Africa only gets an average of about 520mm of rain each year, compared with 920mm in Malawi, 1 060mm in Kenya and 2 170mm in India.
North West was recently declared a disaster area due to drought, and there is severe drought in Free State and Northern Cape. Demand for water is also increasing. Since 1990, nearly 15 million people have gained access to taps. But still only 43% of South Africans have running water in their homes.
In the past, South Africa built dams actively to keep up, and as part of government’s plans to spend R10.2 billion in the current financial year and R15.5 billion in the next financial year on water infrastructure, new dams will be constructed in Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape.
But at the same time, water quality is decreasing. In 2005, 76% of households thought water quality was good, compared with 62% in 2011. The fact that more than a third of municipal water is lost means there is great scope for saving water – if the pipes are replaced.
Currently, 169 entities control the water of 231 local municipalities.
In England, for example, there are just 10 authorities, so a merger of some municipalities could serve to improve water supply.