Whatever the magnitude of the proposed increases, South Africans are in for some very uncomfortable increases in the price of electricity – the result of a failure to heed warnings and plan appropriately. The electricity saga could well repeat itself in the next few years in Gauteng’s water supply.
South Africa is not well-endowed with water. Its rainfall is well below the world average, and commentators such as the renowned scientist, Dr Anthony Turton, have pointed out that it is rapidly running out of options and has largely committed its water supply. This may be aggravated by climate change. Gauteng has another problem: it is South Africa’s economic hub, yet it does not have the local water resources that make large settlements viable. These need to be brought in from elsewhere. But its population continues to expand through both birthrate and in-migration.
Meanwhile, the state of its water supply infrastructure is a cause for concern. It is aging and in many instances approaching the end of its lifespan. Some facilities will need refurbishment. Some will need expansion. Acid mine drainage – the flow of severely acidic and polluted water from disused mines – is another matter demanding attention.
The Democratic Alliance is aware that the Gauteng Provincial Government is worried about the state of the water supply system across the province. We have been informed that some R40bn-R60bn could be needed to deal with maintenance and refurbishment issues to stop the pollution of our natural waterways. The failures of municipal governance – much in the news lately – are a key issue here for the water supply system.
This concern was echoed in 2007 by the then Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry who indicated: “Although the funding for national water resources infrastructure maintenance can be regarded as adequate the current funding allocated across other spheres, especially at local and regional level, for bulk water infrastructure investment, maintenance, refurbishment and replacement is totally insufficient.”
Gauteng, ultimately, will have to “do more with less”. Dr Turton has warned that South Africa would increasingly need to turn towards innovation to deal with these problems. This is the route that such water-stressed countries as Israel have had to go.
All of this is implies a significant investment both in infrastructure and in human capacity. The first priority should be to ensure that our existing infrastructure is maintained to the highest possible standards, expanded where necessary and kept in a condition to handle the tasks required of it. Protection of “raw water” systems, that is, rivers and streams, is crucial, since high quality raw water will require less treatment. Money alone will not solve the problem, but it is an essential part of the equation.
This, of course, suggests a need to examine both policy assumptions and spending priorities. The government and ANC cling to the idea of a developmental state. In terms of this, the state – through government institutions, state owned enterprises and state spending – will drive an ambitious programme of human development, infrastructure expansion and industrial growth. In practice it is difficult to see how all this will be possible given the scale of problems besetting these institutions, Eskom being the prime example. There is a grave risk that down this road lies the failure of grand projects undertaken by institutions without the ability to execute them properly, and the inability to recognise priorities. Surely a more sensible path is to focus on getting our basics in order first?
Water supply is clearly one of these basics. If South Africa and Gauteng do not get to grips with this issue timeously, the knock-on effects will be severe indeed: not only in terms of the availability of a secure water supply for personal consumption, but in terms of the viability of the region as a site for industry and economic opportunities. Poor people, and especially those coming to seek a livelihood here, will be the primary losers. Indeed, a more pertinent developmental issue is hard to imagine.
Hopefully, the experience of the Eskom debacle will focus some minds on this issue. The failure to meet this problem – “problem”, not “challenge” – squarely and robustly will have implications that will dwarf those created by the electricity crisis.