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Wed Dec 07 20:12:54 CAT 2016

Political considerations plague SA water supply plans

SIPHO MABENA | 2016-12-01 00:00:00.0

Image by: Gallo Images/Thinkstock

The government department managing South Africa's water and sanitation needs is in crisis, says Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu in a report on service delivery and infrastructure.

The report points to a collapse in infrastructure management, and major skills failures at the Department of Water and Sanitation.

Skills in the department were last audited 15 years ago.

Projects have been delayed, raising major concerns about how South Africa will manage its water supply in future.

Experts have attributed the meltdown to political considerations influencing the awarding of tenders, the use of unqualified but politically connected contractors and the deployment of unskilled workers.

"The consequence is that we are going to be water constrained by 2025 due to political considerations," water expert Anthony Turton said.

Yesterday the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research said the end of the drought that had gripped South Africa since last year was not yet in sight.

Though the summer rainfall is expected to be "normal to above normal", scientists at the council said the weather system was unpredictable.

The summer of 2015-2016 is likely to bring some of the highest temperatures on record.

Earlier this week the Department of Water and Sanitation said dams across the country had reached about 50% of their capacity with the exception of those in Eastern, Western and Northern Cape.

The department has called on households to save water, and some municipalities have imposed water restrictions.

Recently three companies were accused of benefiting irregularly from R502-million in tenders awarded for the improvement of the water supply in Mopani district municipality in Limpopo, which continues to experience water shortages despite the expenditure.

Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane has announced an investigation into several projects, including the controversial Lesotho Highlands project, which she is accused of delaying to allow for the inclusion of a c onsultancy firm that is said to be a big funder of the ANC.

Turton said that after 1994 bulk-water management and processing were devolved to the provinces, reducing the national department's oversight role.

"The problem now is that provincial governments have capacity constraints and this has led to the situation we find ourselves in. Water provision is a key constitutional issue and we are facing a water crisis."

Department employees who want to qualify as engineers are leaving because they are unable to attain the competencies required to register with the Engineering Council of SA.

Makwetu found the use of unskilled labour resulted in injuries.

"An analysis of the age of staff employed as scientists and engineers with high-level skills at the department showed 86 would reach the retirement age of 65 within 10 years," Makwetu noted.

He said the department did not have a plan for replenishing its complement of highly skilled people. Makwetu said five of eight head-of-unit posts at the National Water Resources Infrastructure branch were vacant. The department was hiring Cuban engineers who could not communicate with local employees.

"The difficulty in communication with a foreign engineer delays the transfer of knowledge to local people. The department appointed translators, which eased communication," he said.

The auditor-general's report said that the department did not have sufficient registered engineering professionals to train and evaluate engineering candidates in accordance with industry requirements.

The report identified other problems, including:

  • Poorly performing contractors causing the extension of contract periods and increased costs;
  • Late payment of contractors, resulting in delays and, in more severe cases, contractors having to wait more than 60 days to be paid and being forced into liquidation;
  • Poor project planning resulting in failure to test the quality of ground water before the water is made available to communities;
  • Late application for water-use and sludge-disposal licences, resulting in the illegal disposal of sludge and waste into the environment, and hazardous waste being dumped on open sites, posing health risks.

Makwetu said the department was not meeting its own timeline for the eradication of the backlog in the provision of water in 24 municipal districts.

- Additional reporting by Shenaaz Jamaal

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