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Water sector needs urgent attention to avoid collapse, says Lindiwe Sisulu

16 July 2019 - 15:38 By LINDA ENSOR
The human settlements, water and sanitation minister Lindiwe Sisulu has inherited a department in shambles. File photo.
The human settlements, water and sanitation minister Lindiwe Sisulu has inherited a department in shambles. File photo.
Image: Gallo Images / Lauren Mulligan

Lindiwe Sisulu, tasked by President Cyril Ramaphosa to clean up the department of human settlements, water and sanitation, says SA's water sector requires urgent attention and more resources if it is to avoid an imminent collapse.

The department was left in a shambles by former minister Nomvula Mokonyane, with most projects stalled and the various water boards in a mess because of governance failures.

Mokonyane was a key ally of former president Jacob Zuma and has received constant mention at the state capture inquiry led by deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo.

Sisulu highlighted the problems faced by struggling municipalities in her budget vote speech on Tuesday, noting that the nine water boards and the department are owed R14bn by municipalities for raw water and other services.

The sector has been hit hard by ageing infrastructure; an over-reliance on costly consultants; poor water management by municipalities; a shortage of technical staff; and big water delivery backlogs.

It has also been badly affected by non-compliance by the mines with their water licence conditions; vandalism and theft of water infrastructure; non-payment for services; and poor management of projects. The biggest of these has been the huge financial mismanagement that has seen many top officials at national and municipal level being  investigated.

This situation has been exacerbated by huge debts arising from non-payment, mostly by municipalities. 

Sisulu said the department's financial crisis was mainly due to irregular expenditure. She told MPs that the department's finances needed to be addressed urgently. But her plea comes at a time when the fiscus is constrained with low economic growth likely to lead to lower-than-estimated tax revenue.

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The department was allocated a total budget of R16.4bn in the 2019-2020 financial year but entered the financial year with accruals and payables of R1.7bn from the previous financial year. "These accruals and payables have had a carry-through effect on the budget available for the current needs," Sisulu said.

"The department is engaging the National Treasury on the significant budget shortfalls of more than R2bn affecting key projects such as the Emfuleni intervention project and the Mzimvubu water project [near Maclear in the Eastern Cape].

"I will be having discussions with the finance minister on the possibility of funding or partnering with the private sector to revive the Mzimvubu dam - currently not catered for in our budget - and also the possibility of a new dam," Sisulu said.

She said measures have to be put in place to top slice the municipal grants to service the debt owed to the department and its entities before the grants are paid to municipalities. "This will ensure the sustainable provision of water supply for both bulk and reticulation."

Municipal staff also needed to be trained.

The minister said tendering processes — a major problem in the past decade — would be reviewed and rigorous standards applied to create a system that is "leak resistant".

The department's construction unit will be re-established to undertake maintenance, and new regulations on the conservation of water will be issued. In addition, river, dam and sewerage inspectors will be appointed from August 1.

A special focus will be given to two dam projects that will be executed without further delay: the Umzimvubu dam for which a strategic partner will be sought, and the Vioolsdrift dam project [on the lower Orange River] which will be undertaken with Namibia.

Sisulu said all current investigations will be fast-tracked and an investigative partner approved by the Treasury will be appointed to deal with all outstanding investigations and to fast-track cases.  ​All blocked projects will be reviewed by a panel of experts, headed by a retired judge, to propose a way forward.

Sisulu gave the undertaking that the shameful bucket system will be eradicated within six months.

"Because much is to be done, we will operate in seven-day shifts for the foreseeable future."