Why it took a pandemic to get water tankers moving

Hammanskraal is just one community that has fought years for decent water. In the wake of Covid-19, the true nature of South Africa’s water infrastructure crisis has become more clear.

If you live in Hammanskraal, the arrival of the weekly water tanker is a lifeline and a luxury for residents who have suffered the indignity of begging for access to clean water. While having to queue at the tankers is not ideal, it is better than when residents had to use water contaminated with sewage. 

“We don’t consume the water from the taps. But there are those who do consume it when they have no choice,” says Frank Nkwanyane, a journalist based in the area. 

For four years, residents have been lobbying the City of Tshwane for their basic right to clean water. At the root of the problem is the Rooiwal Water Treatment Works, which urgently needs an upgrade. The ageing plant discharges effluent-filled sludge into the Apies River, which feeds into the Temba Dam, which in turn feeds the Hammanskraal water supply. 

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Community leader Tumelo Koitheng says residents are happy their concerns have been attended to – although it took knocking on every government door to get this far. Finally, the community staged a shutdown, which caught the attention of local government, provincial officials, Parliament and the Human Rights Commission. 

“Water tests confirmed that the water was not fit for consumption,” says Koitheng. Nkwanyane says that when you boiled the tap water, foam would form on the surface, a sign to residents that something was wrong. Many of them, including children, got sick after drinking the water. 

Government has now allocated over R2 billion to upgrade the treatment plant, a process expected to take between three and five years. The water trucks will not be leaving Hammanskraal any time soon.

Tankers to the rescue

The Hammmanskraal water disaster is just one example of how impoverished communities battle to access potable water. The Covid-19 pandemic has both magnified the urgent water crisis and precipitated an unprecedented marshalling of resources. The Department of Water and Sanitation planned to mobilise 18 875 water tankers as part of an intervention presented to Parliament. It would cost an estimated R306 million.

The Eastern Cape Province was expected to receive the most water tankers, 5 395, rolled out across various districts, with KwaZulu-Natal allocated the second highest number – though whether all these tankers have yet been deployed remains unclear. In the same parliamentary presentation, the department stated that clean water is a “crucial weapon to combat Covid-19”. The Mail and Guardian has recently reported that while the water tanks have arrived in schools in some parts of the Easterns Cape, they remain empty, signifying that even when the weapon is identified, it is not always used effectively.

World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus agrees. “The simple act of cleaning hands can be the difference between life and death, and remains one of the most important public health measures for protecting individuals, families and communities against diseases,” he says. 

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In just a few weeks, the water department was able to identify which areas required tankers and provided around R300 million in funding. The government’s water tanker project indicates that the department has known for some time which communities are in urgent need of clean water. This suggests that more than resource constraints are at play here. Obviously, the water department is poorly managed. This bungling trickles down to the various water boards and municipalities struggling with old infrastructure and insufficient skills or support to supply basic services, resulting in a horror story almost as concerning as the pandemic itself. 

Who has piped water?

The auditor-general presented the department’s audit outcomes early in May this year and, according to the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG), “The auditor-general said that there had been a regression in audit outcomes for the water portfolio over the previous five years.

“There was no longer a single entity that had achieved a clean audit. There was repeated evidence – in all entities – of a disregard for compliance with legislation, yet there had been little evidence of any consequence management during the years in question. The high number of changes in Directors-General – 13 over five years – with many in an acting capacity, had been a prime cause of instability in the department,” the PMG reported. 

The auditor-general’s own report points to major leadership concerns in the department. “The leadership instability persisted at top management level, as a result of vacancies and/or suspensions of the Accounting Officer, Chief Financial Officer and other Deputy Directors General for extended periods during the year under review.”

Also concerning is the disconnect between the budget spent by the department and the achievement of its goals. The water infrastructure development programme spent 98% of its budget in 2018/19 while achieving only 50% of the programme goals. The bucket eradication programme managed to attain only “13% of planned targets” despite using 93% of the programme’s budget. 

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The department’s “fruitless and wasteful expenditure” is a whopping R754 million, a significant increase from R546 million the previous year. “The majority of the disclosed fruitless and wasteful expenditure for the current year was caused by contractor invoices not being paid, resulting in interest and standing time being incurred, as well as excessive management fees being charged,” the auditor-general’s office explains. 

These failings can be seen translating into slow or no improvement in ensuring South Africans have water in their homes. According to Stats SA’s 2018 General Household Survey, only 46.7% of households have access to piped water within their dwellings. A further 28.5% have access to piped water “on site” and 12% of households use communal taps and water sources – a situation that exposes millions of South Africans to the coronavirus while meeting at communal water points. 

“Although generally households’ access to water improved, 2.7% of households still had to fetch water from rivers, streams, stagnant water pools, dams, wells and springs in 2018,” the survey says. 

Between 2010 and 2018, there has been limited improvement in the number of households with access to piped water – increasing from 42.8% in 2010 to the current 46.8%. In eight years that number has not gone above 50%. 

Households with access to water “on site” have also only seen a nominal increase – in 2002 27.1% of households had this type of access and, although the numbers improved to 29.1% by 2010, they went down again in 2018 to 28.5%. 

Plans to provide water

Against this bleak backdrop, the department says it is now marshalling all its resources for a quick response to water problems, spurred on by the pandemic. It also wants to return to National Treasury to request a further R831 million for the water tanker programme, which, in the middle of a global pandemic, is merely a plaster over a gaping wound. 

The department’s own officials admit the failure to provide water to communities is a major national concern. Head of the Gauteng water department Sibusiso Mthembu was quoted saying: “There is still a long way to go to deal with the virus. So, the delivery of water to communities remains our absolute priority. … We still face some very difficult days ahead and thus we must double our efforts.”

Amnesty International reports that one in three South Africans does not have access to clean drinking water. Government needs to find a sustainable water provision plan that will see allocated money reach the taps in needy communities – even after Covid-19. 

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