Is SA on the verge of water shedding? Photo By Nic Bothma/EPA-EFE

By Mbangwa Xaba

Water covers 70% of our planet, and it is easy to think that it will always be plentiful. However, freshwater – the stuff we drink, bathe in, irrigate farms with–is becoming scarce. Many of the water systems that keep ecosystems thriving and quench the thirst of a growing population have become stressed. Rivers and other sources of water are drying up or becoming too polluted to use. Now, government is worried about the possibility of water-shedding in some parts of the country. This, as ancient and poorly maintained municipal infrastructure collapses. This has already led to violent protests in some communities that cannot access water. Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) spokesperson Sputnik Ratau told The Telegram: “If we all (government and municipalities) do the right things, this could be averted, but as things stand, anything (including water shedding) is possible.
“We’re not envisaging water-shedding in the future. There’s a whole lot of planning toward water security, accompanied by infrastructure development and work that’s underway. “New infrastructure in areas like the Lesotho Highlands Water Project Phase II is currently underway. There are water supply augmentation projects in all provinces. “What is also important is to raise the level of operations and maintenance throughout the water value chain,” he said. Last week, the town of Musina in Limpopo experienced complete shut down as protesters took to the streets demanding water supply. Ratau said infrastructure failure at municipal level was a sore point throughout the country. “National government will work with municipalities to deal with the issue including drawing in private sector expertise. What is important is to know where these occur then address them, the DWS, Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta), especially through Municipal Infrastructure Support Agent (Misa) will co-operate with municipalities in this regard as well as ensuring infrastructure expenditure is also ring-fenced,” he said. Meanwhile, police in Nyalas had to use rubber bullets to calm violent protests in Musina as schools and shops were closed and protesters blocked the streets. Residents, who demanded answers from the Vhembe District Municipality Executive Mayor Nenguda Dowelani, were furious when the mayor sent Municipal Manager Tshimangadzo Ndou, instead. They claimed Ndou would not leave the police Nyala to speak to them and demanded that all residents who gathered at a community hall be searched for dangerous weapons before she addressed them. “It is surprising that the municipal manager wants us searched before addressing the residents but when we voted authorities into power, they never requested that we be searched,” said one protester, who wished to remain anonymous. These protests by the people of Musina, in the Vhembe District, mirror the anger of the people of Sekhukhune, in Polokwane and Giyane. As exasperation has ignited this widespread anger and violent protests, high levels of frustration are escalating in two others provinces. The Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality in the EC is struggling to contain leaks as the water infrastructure leaks water in most parts of the area, especially in Motherwell. A resident said this leak has been going for two months. In NU9, Motherwell, water is gushing out of a house, flooding and creating a large puddle of water at the entrance of the house. Bongani Makhubele, who lives in the area, says the water comes from a burst pipe and flows down the street before it enters a drain. The stream that has been created is about two kilometres. “This is clean water and is being wasted,” Makhubelo said. In Gauteng, affluent has been pumped into the Vaal River by the Sedibeng Municipality for some time, because the municipality’s water treatment plants simply cannot cope. Residents and environmental organisations are fuming about the pollution of the river. The Vaal River, a source of water for about 19-million South Africans, is now polluted “beyond acceptable levels”, impacting on natural ecosystems and endangering people’s health.
This is according to a new report by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), released on Wednesday, that looks into the Vaal River’s sewage problem. Kilolitres of untreated sewage now flow into the Vaal as a result of “dilapidated” wastewater treatment plants that unable to process raw sewage, the inquiry found. “The consequence is that the pollution is impacting natural ecosystems directly dependent on the water in and from the Vaal,” the report stated. The commission found that the fact that raw sewage had flown into the river for at least five years was a violation of a number of constitutional rights, including the constitutional right to human dignity and an environment that is not harmful to health or well-being. Broken promises, a lack of political will and a desperate shortage of government money mean there is little hope the Vaal River’s sewage pollution crisis will end any time soon. “There is no end in sight to the Vaal sewage pollution crisis, just a long trail of broken promises, a lack of political will and a lack of government funding for the repairs to the Emfuleni wastewater treatment system,” Save the Vaal Environment chair Maureen Stewart told the Sunday Times. In March last year, DWS promised to “expedite a strategic intervention scheme to significantly minimise the impact of raw sewerage seeping into the Vaal River and its tributaries in the Southern Gauteng Region.” Ratau has made the same promises once again. “This is a national project. The DWS is using Rand Water as the Implementing Agent to resolve this national Achilles heel. Work is underway to do unblocking of the lines, work will also be done at the dysfunctional pump stations and wastewater treatment plants. “This is a tedious assignment which will take time. As the department and Rand Water, our focus is on resolving all the challenges,” said Ratau. He said in the meantime the municipality will have to ensure that the reticulation infrastructure is also brought up to scratch, adding that the DWS, the Gauteng provincial government and other departments were supporting the municipality. According to Ratau, government is concerned about the country’s state of sanitation. This was because access to dignified sanitation still lags access to water, which is a global phenomenon. “What is important is for South Africa is to embrace new technologies that are coming into the sector. This will enhance delivery,” he said. The department continues to work together with municipalities to raise the level of access. Availability of bulk water in areas still not served will also ensure delivery because it’s important to ensure wastewater services are also in place.” He said the government was cooperating and working closely with the commission’s recommendations.

Additional reporting by

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