Members of the National Assembly today debated what has been called a water provision crisis in South Africa in a mini-plenary in the National Assembly. The Chief Whip of the Economic Freedom Fighters, Mr Floyd Shivambu, proposed this subject for debate.

Leading the debate, Mr Shivambu stressed the importance of water for sustainable human development. “The crisis of water provision in South Africa is a man-made crisis. It is not a result of some unforeseen natural disasters,” he told the plenary, adding that there is no justification that there are still areas in South Africa where people do not have access to potable water.

Mr Shivambu cited the National State of Water Report of 2022 and said it was clear from the report that part of the crisis in water provision is that water infrastructure is aging and becoming dysfunctional. Aging infrastructure results in water losses, he said.

He also referred to the National Water and Sanitation Master Plan, which he said shows the poor state of the country’s wastewater treatment systems. Mr Shivambu also expressed concern that the country may face a water deficit come 2030, given the prevailing water losses in ailing municipalities and the lack of skills and mismanagement of water resources, problems he placed firmly at the ruling party’s door.

Interventions underway

Also participating in the debate was the Deputy Minister of Water and Sanitation, Mr David Mahlobo, who was frank about the challenges and who outlined interventions underway. “Our country remains a water-scarce country, but as the ANC, we want to assure South Africans that our water balance in terms of the existing demand and on a national scale – we don't have a problem of water scarcity. But we must admit,” he said, “that there are localised deficits due to climate change that we have seen in Nelson Mandela Bay and some parts of Gauteng, where there has been an increased demand on the basis that the Lesotho Highlands Water Project was delayed.”

Mr Mahlobo told members that statistics show that 90% of South Africans have access to water. “Nobody can deny the fact that access to water has improved and that the issues of the burden of disease, like waterborne diseases, hunger and poverty have been improved.”

Referring to women who historically have often borne the brunt of having to fetch and carry water over long distances, he said, “Nobody can deny that there was a burden that was actually given to women that had to walk long distances and children that were denied the right to go to school and participate in all these economic activities – the ANC has reversed that.”

Nonetheless, he acknowledged that there are still issues around municipal water distribution systems that the government is addressing. He also flagged the deterioration of water quality “due to human activity – whether it is industrial or whether it is domestic use – that impacts on water quality”. Other challenges, he said, include water losses and the impact of climate change. “Most of the delays around the implementation of water supply development projects have been unlocked,” he said, referring to the Lesotho Highlands Phase 2 Project.

Toward solutions 

NA member Ms Mookgo Matuba (ANC) also reminded members that since 1994 there have been massive water infrastructure projects to address unequal access to this resource. “[These water infrastructure projects] have been delivered for the benefit of communities but what is lacking is that communities must take ownership of this important asset. Communities must be made to understand that the government is a government for the people by the people, so government property is community property,” she said.

According to Mr Leon Basson (DA), South Africans must become water wise and government must create public awareness of the reality of the effect of climate change. “We must use less water,” he said. While stressing that South Africa is a water-scarce country, Mr Basson noted that the lack of infrastructure maintenance and the failure of infrastructure is a major contributor to the water crisis.

IFP MP Ms Sbuyiselwe Buthelezi bemoaned the cuts to municipal conditional grants and the impact this will have on addressing the water crisis. She also stressed that the unpredictability of climate change shows the need for proper planning. “Currently, government’s efforts stand miniscule to the needs and demands of the country,” she said. “Unfortunately, there is no hope for this crisis to be resolved, as almost 6% of municipal conditional grants have been cut by National Treasury. And while climate change adds to the crisis, poor planning and underfunding remain the biggest culprits.” Ms Buthelezi said the government keeps telling people to save water. “But it is impossible to save something that is not there.”

Freedom Front Plus member Mr Pieter Mey also warned that droughts will only get worse and ageing infrastructure, urbanisation and inadequate water storage facilities are all increasing pressure on water resources and infrastructure. He too pleaded for better planning and management that should include measures such as desalination, treating and recycling wastewater, among others.

Alicestine October

24 November 2023