Outa lashes out at water authority’s ‘luxury’ Las Vegas trip

13 June 2018 - 07:00 By Aron Hyman
Umgeni Water spokesperson Shami Harichunder said the delegation is currently attending the America Water Works Association 2018 Annual Conference.
Umgeni Water spokesperson Shami Harichunder said the delegation is currently attending the America Water Works Association 2018 Annual Conference.
Image: Kaveel Singh via Twitter

In June 2017‚ the financial situation at Umgeni Water was so bad that former water affairs minister Nomvula Mokonyane disbanded the entity’s board and appointed an interim one.

Fast forward a year‚ five of the new board members - brought in to “stabilise the governance issue” at SA’s second largest water utility - are in Las Vegas. 

The Organisation for Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) said that this was despite a letter by Mokonyana sent to Umgeni Water in 2016 warning them that all international travel needed to be “consulted and approved” by the minister as part of “cost containment measures”.

The delegation is currently attending the America Water Works Association (AWWA) 2018 Annual Conference and Exposition‚ along with 12‚000 fellow water experts‚ to “network” and “learn”‚ according to Umgeni Water spokesperson Shami Harichunder.

According to Outa‚ the Department of Water and Sanitation‚ which gives subsidies to water utilities‚ was also cited in an Auditor General report to have spent R6.4-billion irregularly. The report also noted concern for four of the nine water boards. This included Umgeni.

In her letter‚ Mokonyana asked that delegations be limited to a “reasonable number” of officials in light of the fact that parliamentary oversight structures were becoming “increasingly sensitive to what is perceived to be unnecessary expenditure”.

Outa has written to newly-appointed water and sanitation minister Gugile Nkwinti‚ asking whether Umgeni obtained approval to send nearly the entire board to the opulent US desert oasis famed for its casinos. Outa described the US visit as a “luxurious trip”.

But Umgeni Water said this trip was budgeted for and was “in line” with the utility’s “strategic objective”.

“It opens another opportunity to share information and knowledge‚ to learn about water resource management in the United States‚ about infrastructure development and new streams of funding and about the future of water. It is also in line with the core functions of Umgeni Water‚” said Harichunder.

“Umgeni Water complies strictly with budgetary requirements and ensures that costs are managed prudently and in the best interest of the organisation‚” he added.

He also claimed that Umgeni Water was self sustaining and received no funding from government.

But Yamkela Ntola‚ OUTA’s portfolio manager for water and environment‚ asked why it was necessary to send such a large delegation when the entity‚ which provides water for six million people in KwaZulu-Natal‚ was cutting its budget for capital expenditure projects over the next five years due to financial constraints by national government which meant they would receive smaller subsidies.

“Attending a conference of this nature may well be beneficial to the interim board in as far as performing its functions‚ however in the light of the department’s financial position‚ why is it necessary that a majority of the board members attend?” said Ntola.

The five board members attending the conference include Thami Hlongwa‚ acting chief executive‚ Sbusiso Madonsela‚ company secretary‚ Ziphozethu Mathenjwa‚ chairperson of the board‚ Midiavhathu Tshivhase‚ board member and Monica Malungu.

Four other South African were also attending the conference‚ including Sizwe Zuma of the Insika Foundation where Mathenjwa is also a director.

Ntola said that a whistleblower who alerted them to the trip said the board did not obtain ministerial approval for the trip.

“According to our information‚ this was not approved. We have written to the minister asking for him to account for this expenditure‚” said Ntola.

“Outa believes that trips like this are where a lot of the irregular and fruitless expenditure occurs‚ particularly when officials travel on business class and stay at five-star accommodation‚ all at the expense of the taxpayer‚ while the water sector is in disarray‚” he said.

He said that they have asked the minister and Parliament to take action against the individuals and for them to pay for the trip personally.

“We are seeking legal advice on the way forward‚ should those in authority not take the necessary steps to hold these individuals to account‚” he said.