December 14, 2018

Who is actually responsible for addressing the drought?

After a day-long discussion, a joint meeting of parliamentary Committees affected by the drought agreed on one point: We need one clear voice to articulate a national strategy.

A committee meeting on the country’s drought heard in Parliament earlier this month that the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA), which is the lead department in national drought relief efforts, has underspent by R300 million.

Meanwhile the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) had spent its funds on trying to assist local municipalities that did not have money for pipelines from reservoirs and other water-related infrastructure, while COGTA, which was responsible for local government, apparently still had money in its budget.

This came from Shadow Minister of Water and Sanitation Leonard Basson who declared that in October last year the Minister of Water and Sanitation had said that she would no longer intervene in municipalities because local governance was COGTA’s responsibility. Basson announced that 84% of municipalities could not maintain their water infrastructure, and yet close to the end of financial year COGTA still had nearly R1 billion in its budget. He wanted to know how it would be spent and if COGTA would address lack of maintenance of water infrastructure at local level.

Local municipalities have no money for water-related infrastructure, while COGTA still has money in its budget.

This matter struck at the very heart of the challenges discussed in the marathon meeting; uncertainty over who is responsible for addressing the severe drought, which has struck three provinces – the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape – with additional pockets of drought throughout the country.

The meeting was billed as an opportunity for the Ministers of COGTA, Water and Sanitation and other affected departments to discuss an integrated strategy. But it left Committee members largely unimpressed. They indicated that not much progress had been made since the last presentation by the National Disaster Management Centre in October 2017 and said it was up to the COGTA Minister, Des van Rooyen, to communicate a nationally developed strategy to stakeholders.

CWS, which called the meeting earlier this month, invited representatives of several other Committees to attend. But the focus was on COGTA and the National Disaster Management Centre, comprising relevant Ministers and senior officials and which reports directly to Van Rooyen.

The message from the Committee was clear. There was too much confusion, with information coming from all three levels of government. A common message was needed, with COGTA and the DWS working together and communicating with provincial and municipal authorities about what was needed and what the Departments planned to do.

This got off to a shaky start when the Minister of Water and Sanitation, Minister Nomvula Mokonyane, announced that she had to excuse herself about 20 minutes into the meeting to attend a Cabinet meeting. This prompted objections from Members who questioned her priorities.

The other clear point of attrition was the allocation of funding, not only between national government departments but also at local level. Last year R8 billion was set aside to address the drought in affected provinces yet, as pointed out by a Committee member, Nelson Mandela Bay Metro alone required R7 billion.

The drought in the Western Cape received extensive attention, with reports of a 40% decline in the agri-economy, heavy losses of livestock and massive drops in horticulture, affecting 208 000 workers plus their families and eliminating 22,000 seasonal jobs.

The meeting heard that the City of Cape Town had spent less than half the funds it had received for drought relief by the end of January. Cape Town received R74.8 million in August last year for emergency drought relief measures but had only spent 24% by the end of December and 40% by the end of January.

The Council blamed the underspend on protracted procurement processes and said it was awaiting water licences from the Department of Water and Sanitation. Drilling for water took time, the Council explained.

While Minister van Rooyen declared himself confident that he could manage the disaster, the Head of the National Disaster Management Centre, Dr Mmaphaka Tau, was not as ebullient. He reported to the Committee that management of the drought had prioritised measures such as water carting, drilling for water and developing boreholes, all of which were extremely costly. He referred to them as unsustainable, temporary measures. Other measures already in place, such as water usage restrictions, rainwater harvesting and re-use of grey water were described as short-term solutions.

There were also questions about the efficacy and cost of desalination plants and Members noted that many boreholes had been drilled but were not producing water for a variety of reasons.

It was apparent from the meeting that wastewater treatment plants could be the answer. The wastewater plant at Umhlanga, which turned effluent and wastewater into drinking water for the elite Zimbali Estate, was presented as an extremely successful example. The South African Institute of Civil Engineering, in its presentation, offered to help train senior municipal officials across the country in the management of water treatment and wastewater treatment plants, skills that it said were clearly lacking.

At one point the day-long meeting veered away from the consideration of optimal means of addressing immediate water shortages to a broader political question: who owns the country’s water?

The Department of Water and Sanitation had been told that there were 4 000 dams in the country yet only 350 were under the control of the Department of Water and Sanitation. There was something wrong there, the Committee Acting Chairperson said. Government should control the country’s water resources.

Unlike the Eastern Cape, Cape Town was still very green, said Lindiwe Maseko of the ANC, which demonstrated how much of its water was privately owned. She said there was a need for legislation to ensure that the Department controlled water as a commodity because the country was at the mercy of those who had water.

The ANC’s Andrew Madella asked how the Theewaterskloof Dam, the biggest dam in the Western Cape, was less than 12.5% full while “on its doorstep in Grabouw there was a dam that was so full that it could “donate” water. He described this as a contradiction because water was a national asset.

Makoti Khawula of the EFF reported that during an oversight visit in a rural part of Mpumulanga they had encountered one black land owner, yet his land had no water and no electricity.

Minister van Rooyen’s response was to remind the Committee that the drought could not be seen in isolation from the primary development challenge facing the country. It was critical to analyse the daily development challenges which increased vulnerability to drought or its severity.

Moira Levy

Information sourced from the Parliamentary Monitoring Group

Additional Info

  • Author: Moira Levy
Last modified on Monday, 19 February 2018 10:23

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