bone dry

South Africa: Outlaws exploit water woes for profit

By Audrey Simango

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Posted on July 19, 2023 13:03

South Africa water tanker township
Water outages leave residents with no choice but to pay high prices to tanker operators. (REUTERS/Rogan Ward)

A massive water shortage is prompting a push for dams – while the country’s water mafias continue to profit.

When Johannesburg Water announced it was shutting off the supply for 58 hours on Tuesday 11 July for planned maintenance, Grace Ramotlwa knew what it would mean for her: high prices per 20-litre bucket of water delivered by informal mobile water tankers.

“Our water troubles are endless – whenever municipal taps are dry, which is now suspiciously often. Water hawkers fleece us,” says the single mum of two in Soweto, the most populous township of Johannesburg.

“What angers me is water tankers are already prowling the streets. Who really owns and benefits from these water tanker contracts?”

Water stress by 2030

Johannesburg’s mega faucet shut-off was emblematic of how South Africa’s water crisis affects those on low incomes worst of all; critics say water shortages will someday make the country’s electricity plight a lesser problem.

“We became water scarce many years ago, never mind water stressed,” says Neil Macleod, ex-director of water and wanitation at Durban Municipality and now president of the South African Academy of Engineering. He tells The Africa Report of his fears that South Africa will most probably reach water stress by 2030.

When 32 residents died from a debilitating cholera outbreak in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, in June, years of systemic dysfunction in water management and ‘water capture’ by water mafias came to the fore.

Water mafias are politically connected businesspersons who either bag public water contracts, overcharge and do a shoddy job delivering water afterwards, or cartels who sabotage clean water supplies hoping to run lucrative businesses trucking emergency water to households for a fee.

Liquid failure

Even before so-called ‘water mafias’ gained a foothold, South Africa was already mismanaging its water resources, critics say. While Anthony Turton, a water expert at the Centre for Environmental Management, warns that South Africa has been “in a crisis since 2002” because 98% of all water available has already been allocated, Macleod likes to focus on the rampant mismanagement that lies at the heart of the country’s water woes.

  • High levels of non-revenue water is flowing out of taps across South Africa because of poor asset management in municipalities and water boards.
  • The state is hyping the construction of new water infrastructure while ignoring the maintenance of existing assets.
  • There is a failure to limit the extraction of water to permitted amounts – a key feature of the 2018 Cape Town water crisis when agriculture was allowed to significantly over-extract water from the shared dams.
  • Delays have hampered the construction of new dams.

“There are many examples of dams being built more than six years after the date they were needed,” says Macleod.

Growing population numbers, rising levels of unemployment, declining levels of maintenance, poor skills within the water sector – and, of course, mismanagement of water infrastructure – are creating a great thirst in South Africa, says Kirsty Carden, director of the Future Water Research Institute at the University of Cape Town.

However, geography is to blame, too. “South Africa is classified as water-scarce – it’s around the 30th driest country in the world – and water-stressed; it has variable rainfall with annual precipitation about 40% lower than the world average,” says Carden.

Water-mafia feast

When Pretoria’s cholera outbreak grounded city hospitals, alarming allegations of water destabilisation arose.

As cholera raged, an independent commission of inquiry claimed that Edwin Sodi, a tycoon closely linked to the ruling ANC party and currently undergoing trial for ‘state capture’ in South Africa, got a R295m ($16.3m) deal to refurbish and upgrade the main water reservoir in the capital.

He abandoned the job, thus contributing to the cholera outbreak.

Sodi denies all allegations of recklessness. Cilliers Brink, the new mayor of Pretoria, went further and said the source of the June cholera infection was a network of water mafias trucking tainted supplies in cholera-hit suburbs.

Ferrial Adam, a water rights activist and executive manager of WaterCAN, a network of citizen-science activists who advocate for clean, safe, and sustainable water management in South Africa, has seen how water mafias are holding residents by the collar.

“This has been going on for years in some parts of South Africa,” she tells The Africa Report.

“In 2019, I referred to what was happening in the Eastern Cape province – it was reported that the water-tanker mafia was purposefully destroying pipelines to continue receiving tenders from the municipality,” she says.

The desperation that occurred from water destabilisation in 2019 led some residents in South Africa’s coastal Eastern Cape province to almost “kill each other for water”, she adds.

Assassination in the name of water

While there is no direct evidence of political connections between officeholders and the water mafias, it cannot completely be ruled out given the corruption that occurs around water contracts in South Africa, adds Adam.

“There was evidence submitted at Zondo [state capture] Commission on corrupt practices and mismanagement in the water and sanitation department,” says Adam.

Not enough is being done to monitor the water-tanker mafia. The water [ministry] seems to be cleaning house, but it’s hard not to wonder if it’s too little too late

“More recently, there have been assassinations of people in water boards linked to high levels of corruption, for example in the Umgeni Water Board,” she says.

In Umgeni, a town in South Africa’s restive KwaZulu Natal Province, ‘water kingpins’ were reportedly assassinated in 2021 and 2023 by business and political rivals over municipal water boards turf.

“The existence of the water mafia is clear to see – how many have political connections is hard to tell, but given the high levels of corruption in municipalities, I am sure there are [some],” says engineer Mcleod.

Few dam sites left

In South Africa, there have been repeated calls for the state to go on a spree to construct massive new dams to stop the water crisis, but experts eschew this suggestion.

“I don’t believe that building massive new dams [in South Africa] is the answer to the water crisis,” the Water Future Research Institute’s Carden cautions.

Mcleod agrees, because all coastal cities have access to seawater that can be desalinated, and all regions have access to water-reuse technologies.

“There are few dam sites left in South Africa, and the safe yield of the existing dams is reducing because of climate change and siltation,” he says.

Dams, too, in South Africa are sites of mismanagement and calamity. According to a ‘shocking’ investigation by the water ministry in 2022, about 90% of the country’s largest dams don’t comply with safety standards.

Instead, efficient use of the water that is already available should be the focus, and an improvement in the quality of treated effluent entering the environment is essential.

“The recent Green Drop and Blue Drop assessments […] show the poor state of our water and wastewater treatment works,” says Mcleod, referring to the paper published by the water ministry this year.

“What is needed is establishing water resilience through a well-considered planning process that also takes into account requirements for the ongoing operation and maintenance of water infrastructure,” Carden says.

Too late?

Water rights activist Adam says the water mafias operating across South Africa may soon be unrestrainable.

“Not enough is being done to monitor the water-tanker mafia. The water (ministry) seems to be cleaning house, but it’s hard not to wonder if it’s too little too late,” she says.

If water unaccountability continues in South Africa, “the sabotage of water infrastructure will only get worse”, warns Adam.

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