The new Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, has her hands full in 2011. Notwithstanding her duty to ensure a successful round of climate change negotiations in Durban at the end of the year, she has numerous problems in the water sector that need her urgent attention. Her predecessor allowed the management of the water sector to deteriorate under her watch, and the DA remains highly concerned about the blatant mismanagement of the water sector. We urge Minister Molewa to place water at the top of her agenda. For the sake of securing our future water security, both in terms of quality and supply, 2011 has to be a year of action. The growing threats to the quality of water and the failing infrastructure are a threat to human and environmental health. As so often is the case with environmental degradation, the costs will be carried disproportionately by disadvantaged South Africans, unless the situation is rectified. Furthermore, costs will be carried by the economy at large, affecting economic growth and job creation.
These are some of the steps the Minister will need to take to ensure that the situation is turned around:
1. Improving compliance of waste water treatment works (WWTWS)
There is a continued deterioration of WWTWs, particularly in small municipalities, resulting in untreated effluent being discharged into water courses. The government’s last Green Drop Report acknowledged that the “waste water service business is considered to be far from acceptable”. Of all plants in SA only 3.8% have the acclaimed Green Drop status, yet there is no action plan from national government to improve the situation. At the moment interventions are haphazard.
2. Instituting the medium-to-long-term solution on acid mine drainage (AMD)
The Water Department has dragged its feet on the AMD response. Cabinet will only approve the report of the Task Team on AMD in February despite it having been presented to the Inter-Ministerial Committee three months ago. Meanwhile the AMD is less than 500m below Joburg, it continues to decant in the West Rand, and the water is only a few metres away from flooding the pumps at the Aurora mine. The Minister, in conjunction with the Mining Minister, needs to approve the medium-to-long-term response in the coming weeks, and establish rehabilitation plans for those areas already devastated by AMD.
3. Improving governance in the water department
The Water Department’s DG was found guilty of various charges relating to irregular expenditure last year, after having first been place on “special leave” in July 2009. Adding to that, both the CFO and the Acting DG were suspended in November 2010 pending investigation. All investigations need to be concluded, and a new DG, who is a competent professional with strong financial management skills, must be appointed.
4. Fixing The Water Trading Entity
The Water Trading Entity (WTE) must be placed in intensive care. The WTE, which manages the fee collection from the sale of bulk water to water users, received a qualified audit opinion from the AG last year, making it two disclaimer opinions and two qualified opinions in the last five years. The Department does not have reliable information on water users around SA, and at the moment there is no turnaround strategy for the entity.
5. Filling vacancies in the Blue Scorpions
As of late last year 79% of posts for the Blue Scorpions across the national and regional offices were vacant. These posts need to be filled urgently in order for the Department to enforce compliance and prosecute pollution events from water users.
6. Improving dam mangement
The recent floods were almost certainly worsened by the management of the Vaal Dam. The Minister needs to review dam management during the rainy season and improve protocols that manage the outflow from dams. In addition, dam health needs urgent attention. The focus up to now has been almost exclusively on river health, but the rapidly deteriorating quality of dams through eutrophication needs to sound alarm bells. The ineffective so-called remediation project at Hartbeespoort Damn needs to be audited.
7. Ensuring that municipalities pay their water bills
The debt owed by municipalities to water boards grew from R1.1bn in July 2009 to R1.5bn in mid 2010. This debt seriously compromises the ability of water boards to invest in new infrastructure. The Minister must engage with Treasury to ensure that debts are collected.
8. Ensuring that water usage is correctly licenced
The Department has set itself the goal of processing the water use licence backlog by the end of March 2011. This backlog stood at over 4100 applications at the end of 2009. But going forward the Department has to improve the rigour of the licensing process. The Department must have the guts to deny water licences to mines that wish to operate in sensitive areas. Furthermore, the use of water by mines must only be approved by the valid granting of licences and not through ambiguous general authorisations.
Minister Molewa has a difficult year ahead. The DA will closely monitor her performance, and hold her to account on these and other issues in the water sector.