Beyond infrastructure plans – SA needs action, regulation to overcome water and waste crises
Major long-term infrastructure plans are necessary, but South Africa also needs to take immediate action to overcome current water and waste management problems and looming crises.
Stakeholders across the water, wastewater and waste management sectors report growing frustration at the lack of progress in averting crises, despite years of discussion and planning. Pointing to critical failures in water and wastewater service delivery and a looming crisis in landfills and waste management in much of the country, experts say South Africa appears to lack the will to take real action.
The experts emphasize that sustainable action plans must be implemented as a matter of urgency, with the government committing to enabling these plans, and independent regulators assigned to enforce their implementation. By moving now to address water and waste management problems, South Africa has an opportunity to delay or even avoid crises, and also to spark much-needed job creation in many sectors.
Urgent action needed on Water Master Plan
The National Water and Sanitation Master Plan, designed to guide the water sector with investment planning for the development of water resources and the delivery of water and sanitation services, does address key issues, but falls short in some respects – notably that it is built on outdated data, that the situation has changed since it was drafted, and that little or no progress has been made in implementing it, stakeholders say.
They urged the government not to delay further, and instead of attempting a massive and costly effort to address all challenges at once, to immediately start rolling out ‘quick win’ initiatives. Independent regulators to oversee the environments would be key to overcoming the current challenges, they noted.
“A plan without action is nothing really. If the goals of the water plan were achieved, we would see employment, empowerment, an improvement in the quality of water as a natural resource. But you need the political will and intent to start the process, and the funding will follow.”Wayne Taljaard, Managing Director at WEC Projects.
Progress in the water and waste sectors are foundational to driving investment, economic progress and job creation, say stakeholders. Benoît Le Roy, Environmental, Technology & Project Alchemist, says: “Water is a fundamental economic enabler, so to attract investment you need to address the water challenges. A real problem is that all of our infrastructure is ageing, and by a decade ago our water reserve was 98% allocated. Investors know this and without water security, they won’t invest.”
“Government at the national level understands the realities, but addressing all the challenges is a massive task and we need to see all stakeholders working together, as well as the introduction of an independent regulator.”
New approach to PPPs needed
To help fast-track progress, traditional Public-Private Partnerships models should be re-programmed to create more collaborative and viable partnerships, they say. These new models could include outsourcing maintenance contracts, enabling private sector stakeholders to implement, own and manage key technologies, and bringing in independent water and waste providers as subcontractors to state entities.
The private sector approach in moving quickly, and applying new technologies and industry best practice can address problems quickly and efficiently, say the experts. In contrast, traditional government consultation and procurement processes tend to slow progress down to a virtual standstill. Frustratingly, they say, government departments seem reluctant to accept offers of assistance from the private sector – even when it is offered for free.
Says Dean Mulqueeny, Group Executive – AECI Water: “We have made offers to some municipalities to give them certain pieces of technology without any cost to them, which was unfortunately declined. During the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, we went directly to schools and a clinic at Hammanskraal to offer our assistance and fortunately the City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality agreed. We invested around R3-million and got clean running water to 5 000 people within two months.”
Delays to drive skills out of SA
“There really is a lot of work in the pipeline in future – the Master Plan states R900bn which is R90bn per annum, that is more work than the water-related industry in South Africa could handle over the next ten years.”
Taljaard notes that if water and waste projects do not start soon, South Africa also risks losing key skills. “But we need to do something before all of these businesses shut their doors. The economy is in crisis, cash reserves are running low, there is no envisaged new work in the short- to medium-term, and people are downsizing their businesses or closing down. What happens next is the experienced people and the up-and-coming expertise goes abroad, so when the situation does turn in a few years’ time, we will have a major skills crises and we will have to import skills.”
Private sector approach needed to address waste management
Waste management consultant Kobus Otto says metros in parts of the country are facing a health and environmental crisis, as they are running out of landfill space and no progress has been made in developing new landfill sites.
“We have beautiful plans and pieces of legislation in South Africa, but little in the way of implementation and enforcement. Unless legislation and policies are enforced, they aren’t worth the paper they are written on,” he says.
Instead of current approaches that involve lengthy planning without sufficient research, the public sector should model its efforts on the private sector approach, which seeks to identify sustainable quick wins that are appropriate for the market or community they are deployed in. “For example, it would be far more cost-effective to make well managed landfill and public dumping facilities available within easy reach of communities, instead of continually having to clear illegal dumping – which is a huge expenditure annually,” he says.
Otto believes private sector approaches can go a long way toward solving the problem:
“We need to use Africa’s brainpower appropriately. We need to formalise informal systems and create markets and opportunities, which could create many new jobs and businesses.”
No room for further delays
Mulqueeny says: “The longer we wait to address the issue, the harder it is to fix. We need to start somewhere and work more closely together to make improvements. There are systems and technologies that could make significant improvements very quickly, and the private sector has the expertise and will to help the government deploy them.”
Suzette Scheepers, CEO of IFAT Africa presenters Messe Muenchen South Africa, says: “Collaboration and communication is the only way to address these challenges in a sustainable way. IFAT Africa is a platform designed to bring together key stakeholders across public and private sectors to do exactly that.”
IFAT Africa, the continent’s leading trade fair and forum for water, sewage, refuse and recycling industries, will bring together public and private sector stakeholders from across Africa to discuss challenges and solutions for the water and waste sectors.
For more information, go to https://ifat-africa.com/View more
Coca-Cola rains in local communities
To remind South Africans of the value of water and the need to protect and conserve our country’s water resources, the newly appointed Vice President of the South Africa franchise at Coca-Cola Africa, Phillipine Mtikitiki, is prioritising key sustainability issues such as water stewardship.
“Access to safe water remains a challenge in many of the communities in which we operate in South Africa and we, together with our bottling partners, have made it a priority to improve reliable access to safe water, to protect our water resources and replenish the water we use back into nature,” says Mtikit.
South Africa faces a number of challenges when it comes to water, but Mtikitiki says:
“We are improving the overall water-use efficiency in our manufacturing plants as well as along our supply chain, partnering with government and communities to assess, understand and drive effective, long-term water stress solutions and replenish the water we use back to communities and nature,” she says.
When it comes to replenishing the equivalent of the water used in the making of its beverages, The Coca-Cola Foundation’s Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN) focuses on replenishing water into nature in key watersheds by clearing alien invasive plants. These consume millions of litres of water each year, resulting in water shortages permanent loss to an already stressed water system.
Since 2019, RAIN has worked with partners such as The Nature Conservancy, World Wide Fund for Nature-South Africa (WWF-SA), Living Lands and the Endangered Wildlife Trust to clear 3 400 hectares in South Africa’s priority catchment areas, helping to replenish over an estimated 15-billion litres of water into nature over the next decade. The programme also provided employment and skills training for 389 women and young people in rural areas of South Africa.
“Water is a valuable natural resource whose management requires all our commitment and collective actions.”
This is part of the motivation for local bottling partner, Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa’s (CCBSA) Coke Ville Groundwater Harvesting Project, which provides access to water in certain water-scarce, remote communities with limited economic opportunities. This has taken place in the community of Tshikota, Limpopo, with five additional community access projects planned for deployment across KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape in March.
Relief water also plays an important part of humanitarian operations to bring relief to drought-stricken communities.
Since the beginning of the year, Coca-Cola Peninsula Beverages (CCPB) has been working with local municipalities in water-stressed regions in the Northern and Western Cape, leading relief water operations to assist communities. This has been a lifeline for people in these communities that have, at times in the past few weeks, been without water for up two days.
Expanding on its efforts in the Namakwa and Karkarms district in the Northern Cape, CCPB is now working to provide water relief to Merweville, Laingsburg and Touws River. To date, CCPB has delivered over 3-million litres of water using the tankers it invested in during the drought crisis to assist communities as well as providing specially produced Relief Water in 1L bottles.
“We’re confident that through our water stewardship efforts we will continue to make a difference and protect this most valuable resource,” concluded Mtikitiki.View more
A collaborative approach to the future of water in South Africa
Kader Asmal put it so eloquently when he said, “Water runs through our every aspiration as a society.” It is essential to the health of our population, the socio-economic growth of our country and the basic human dignity of our people. Yet as South Africans, we become increasingly familiar with prolonged drought and are complacent towards the consequences that our ageing civil water infrastructure brings.
Although South Africa is marching towards water equality, challenging terrain in remote areas leaves many of those who need water the most underserviced. The partial privatisation of our water system in which companies and governments collaborate to jointly solve the conundrum of how to create an efficient and sustainable system is a potential solution to the complex water issue.
The reality is that the task of providing every South African with freshwater, although essential is immense and after many political setbacks and the Covid 19 pandemic – our government is unlikely to have the necessary resources to deliver and sustain the access to water promised in our constitution.
This is according to Mannie Ramos Jnr, COO of Abeco, a pioneer in water storage solutions and a champion of water as the most important currency in Africa.
How do we get our water?
Our access to water depends on two distinct components. The first is our natural ecological infrastructure, which is the ecosystems that collect freshwater such as dams and aquifers. Second is the civil infrastructures that disperse and recycle water. Both are key to the conundrum of how to provide South Africans with the level of access to freshwater promised in our constitution as 6000l per household per month.
According to Ramos if we were to privatise the development, maintenance, and expansion of our civil infrastructure systems – such as water treatment plants – and leave the ecological infrastructure under governmental control the division of power between the national and private would remain relatively equal.
“The government could reallocate funds to help mitigate the profound impact of global warming on these ecological systems as well as building new structures,” he explains. “There would be added incentive to work together, as stored water has little social value without a civil infrastructure network, and the private owners of these networks can’t make a profit without the water provided by our ecological resources.”
What is the state of our water systems?
To understand why the government should be motivated to give up the monopoly they currently hold over providing this life bringing resource we must acknowledge that the state of our water system is simply too far gone for government to fix alone.
“Unlike private companies, government-owned companies are sheltered from market forces, so there is little holding them accountable when their negligence towards the maintenance of infrastructure results in the inefficient and wasteful use of water,” Ramos Jnr adds.
“The vast majority of water treatment plants were set up in the 1970s and built from concrete. Many people underestimate that infrastructure is a living thing that requires maintenance to work efficiently. For the people, this means most of their treatment plants are simply past their expiry date and now their integral infrastructure has degenerated and become outdated.”
Ultimately, this has resulted in only a few of the water treatment plants which purify water from sewerage being in safe working condition. Meaning that these plants are only working at a small percentage of capacity, while the population has increased.
Is it possible to privatise our civil water infrastructure?
The privatisation of water infrastructure is often halted before any purification plants are built due to the enormous land area a plant requires and the massive capital outlay it takes. A collaborative approach could easily offset some of these costs and potentially even be profitable for the government as they stand to gain significant revenue from the sale of our compromised infrastructure assets.
The UK demonstrated this in the 1980s when governments sold off state assets to large companies. If spent wisely this additional revenue could have a positive domino effect on other sectors of improvement such as education, housing, skills development, and job creation – perhaps to even provide the new plants themselves with employees.
Private firms are driven by a profit incentive, so it makes sense that in their mission to make every cent from every drop they would be good candidates to control the efficient use of a scarce resource like water. Above being resource-efficient, they are likely to be financially efficient in maintaining plants, and productively efficient in upskilling communities to raise labour productivity because simply put- efficiency is good for profit margins.
Ramos Jnr believes, “Water is still too cheap as a resource to demand the responsible handling of it. Meaning there is little urgency or penalty for institutions who are wasteful.” He adds, “The day water is R20 per litre, we will begin to realise that we need to store reserves of it and begin to look at how to safely recycle, save and distribute enough pure drinking water – but by then there is a very real chance it may simply be too late.”
The concern of many anti-privatisation proponents arises over what will happen when decisions over basic resources are made from a profit perspective and not a human right one. And what happens if citizens stop paying their water bills?
Constitutionally speaking, companies can’t deny someone water leaving companies with little recourse to recoup debts. There must be negotiations between government and private corporations to provide those unable to pay with free water and make provisions such as pre-paid water for any use over and above that.
Why is a collaborative approach essential?
Government and private companies must be held accountable by the public and legal structures for any issues that arise during the implementation of this structure, so a high level of transparency is essential in this approach. If private companies and governments were held accountable in a structure that demanded collaboration by splitting ecological and civil infrastructure resources, it would also be far easier to detect the abuse and enforce the correct use of our water resources.
This mutual accountability structure has the potential to combat the fears of anti-privatisation activists who argue that privatisation is not always efficient or uncorrupted – as the two will work together. Companies should also be held to best practices by their shareholders and if the government no longer having monopoly control over the entire system, additional pressure from the private sector and independent civil structures like the public protector should stop illegal behaviour such as corruption.
What about long-term water continuity?
A potential benefit of a market with multiple private water providers is that each company is motivated by its competitors to provide the best service possible. In practice, this means companies are constantly looking to make more money out of the resources they already have and invest significantly in the research and development of new technologies.
Private companies will need to put large amounts of their capital into building sustainably efficient plants to continue to make money. This means they are motivated to hire experts in engineering, infrastructure, and prediction experts to calculate the best use of our resources and the expected population increase. “Through this consistent research, we are far more likely to have a better water continuity over the next 50 years and not only the next 10,” says Ramos Jnr.
Will partial privatisation work in South Africa?
SAHRC Water and Sanitation recognise that, “Civil society and non-governmental organisations play an important part in monitoring the progressive realisation of the right to water and sanitation services.” In the past, we saw a similar collaborative approach being taken with Alien vegetation clearing programmes. Not only did these programmes achieve their goal, but they had the added benefit of having created employment opportunities along the way.
As the WWF foundation also points out – even in a case where our water infrastructure was maintained – the water demand is increasing, and our goals for our economic growth of the country are inseparably tied to our ability to provide industry with the water it needs. And if the extra demand for water is coming from industry, surely it is logical that industry help make it a reality?
Not to mention that these rapidly inflating needs will have to be met under increasingly harsher, volatile, and unpredictable conditions than in the previous decades.
It is important, however, to admit that many issues in society are kept alive by a failure to recognize the importance of nuance in solutions to large scale historical problems. The complete privatisation of water in South Africa may not be a solution but it has become clear that a hybrid system between municipal governments and private companies is the answer if we are ever to reach the ideal that our constitution is built upon and secure a better future for all.View more
Demand for invasive tree wood boosts SA water security
Water is at the heart of the removal of invasive alien plant (IAP) species in water-scarce South Africa – and momentum is boosting a value-adding ‘green’ chain that is reducing IAPs, replenishing water tables by millions of litres per year, increasing demand for often beautiful and functional IAP wood, and creating jobs.Continue reading View more
DWS report | SA’s water situation remains stable until next summer
On the eve of a dry winter season South Africa has 80% (27 354,7 cubic meters) volume of water in its reservoirs for use until the next summer rains.
According to the latest weekly report on dam levels by the Department of Water and Sanitation, the amount of available water is likely to sustain the country through the dry spell condition that South Africans continue with their water saving practices.
Last month large parts of the country received heavy downpours that resulted in most dams reaching their full capacity and others spilling. In Gauteng DWS officials had to open five sluice gates to release water at the Vaal Dam to avoid possible floods.
The DWS report states that, despite the absence of any significant rainfall at the moment, there has not been any significant change in dam levels since last week. The dams were at 85,5%, an almost 20% improvement compared to the same period last year when they were 66,2%.
Although the Free State dams have dropped by one percent since last week, to 98,8% they remain the highest in the country in terms of actual volume. The province boasts some of the biggest dams in the country such as Gariep and Sterkfontein. The smaller Gauteng dams retained their full capacity of 100,6%, followed by equally smaller dams and the second biggest dam in the country the Vanderkloof, the levels in Northern Cape are at 100,5%.
The Vaal Dam, within the Integrated Vaal River Integrated System, is at 104,9% slightly lower from the 105,2% of last week.
At 88,4% Mpumalanga dams have registered 14% better than the corresponding period last year when they stood at 74,9%. Although the Usuthu-Inkomati Water Integrated Scheme dropped slightly because of lack of rain, the average provincial dam level suggests that the province will have sufficient water in its reservoirs to sustain it through the dry winter. Limpopo finds itself in more or less the same situation as Mpumalanga, despite a slight drop in the province’s dam levels. Having dropped to 87,5% this week, the province compares favourably with the country’s best performing dams.
KwaZulu-Natal dams have maintained last week’s level of 72,1, with the Umgeni River Integrated System has contributed immensely to the water situation in Natal Midlands and eThekwini regions. The Spioenkop Dam in Bergville and the Driel Barrage in the Giants Castle dropped to 100,1% and 95%% respectively. The Umgeni Water Supply System continues to recharge the cities of UMgungundlovu and eThekwini with sufficient water supply despite the absence of rain in the past week. The South African Weather Services has predicted 80% rainfall for the province between Wednesday and Thursday
North West dams registered one percent drop from 82,3% last to 81,6% this week. However, parts of the province such as Madibeng, Ngaka Modiri and Bojanala continue to experience water challenges as a result of poor infrastructure and the lack of rain.
Eastern Cape dams with their downward slide as their levels dropped from 55,8% last week to 55,1% this week. The Nelson Mandela Bay region, which includes the City of Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage, is among the worst affected by dry conditions. The two Water Supply Systems in the province, namely the Algoa and the Amathole, are struggling to cope with the rising water demands.
Western Cape dams have dropped to 56,6% this week. However, with the end of a dry summer hydrological season in sight, the winter rains are expected to boost the province’s dam levels to higher levels.
The Department of Water and Sanitation has praised water users for heeding the message to use water sparingly and urged them to continue doing to survive the looming winter dry season, even as the country commemorates National Water Week.