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SA: Lindiwe Sisulu: Address by Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, during the debate on the President’s State of the Nation Address, National Assembly (19/02/2020)

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SA: Lindiwe Sisulu: Address by Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, during the debate on the President’s State of the Nation Address, National Assembly (19/02/2020)

Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu

20th February 2020

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Madam Speaker,
Chairperson of the NCOP,
Mr President,
Mr Deputy President,
Honourable Members

Benjamin Franklin once said, “when the well is dry, we know the worth of water”. Mr President, this is where we are now. Climate change has incrementally unleashed its wrath on us. We are in the grip of severe water shortage and extreme drought in various parts of the country, especially in the most under-developed areas. Our resilience to these changing weather patterns is compromised by the fact that our infrastructure was never intended to cater for all the parts of the country and where there is adequate infrastructure, it is struggling under the weight of age and lack of maintenance.

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All of this is complicated by the level of theft and vandalism that is experienced in our water systems, therefore creating a complexity all of its own in our response to the natural disaster.

Water security is and will be one of the biggest challenges facing South Africa in the next ten years. It presents a profound challenge to our social wellbeing and our economic growth. In our case in particular we have a legacy problem of unplanned urbanisation and infrastructure that did not anticipate the expansion of networks, resulting in a society that is not sufficiently prepared for the situation it is in right now.

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What we need to understand is that South Africa is the 30th driest country out of 195 countries, making it an extremely vulnerable country. When you juxtapose this with the extreme extravagance of our use of water, you begin to understand that we have to restructure our thinking around the use of water. We use water as if it is in abundance. Our average domestic water use in South Africa is around 237 litres per person per day, whereas the world average is 173 litres (per person per day). South Africa’s mean annual rainfall is 500 mm, considerably below the global average of 860 mm and the distribution across the country is very uneven.

We need to drastically change our habits if we are to give certainty about water security. The reality, Madam Speaker, is that we are a water rapacious country on our diminishing water resources and it is predicted that if we continue to use water the way we do, we will face a deficit of 1.1 Trillion litres by 2035. This is half the capacity of the Vaal dam.

When we add all of these things that I have mentioned, the water lost to negligence, ageing infrastructure, and the deteriorating water quality due to mining, agriculture as well as a general unawareness of the critical importance of water for both life, economy and environment, you begin to realise the enormity of the challenge. The full impact is felt by the most fragile sector of our government, which is at local government level, and one that does not have the necessary skills and expertise. Fortuitously, the District Model allows us to intervene and assist, regrettably mostly after the crisis has manifested itself.

Our Waste Water Treatment capacity has caused enormous distress. The most prominent of this being in the Vaal, which has been receiving our full attention and that of the Deputy President. Here we see the lack of education around the effects of pollution. The major problem in the Vaal Waste Water Treatment area amongst others has been pollution from three provinces and those have converged in the Vaal, with devastating effect. The challenges around water management in South Africa are already significant and water scarcity is the biggest risk to our growth and development.

Madam Speaker, my intention today was not to give a litany of all the problems, but to assure the House that even though it has taken us a long time to reach this stage, we are on top of the water crisis. We want to assure the House that we spent time putting together a response to our problems. The situation is dire, but we have a Plan. It is the National Water and Sanitation Master Plan. Thus far we have received very good reviews of our Plan, and we are emboldened that we are in the right direction.

The Master Plan is a Call to Action to raise awareness. It is intended to guide the water sector with investment planning for the development of water resources and the delivery of water and sanitation services over an initial planning horizon until 2030, and beyond. It will prepare society to better manage incidents of water shortage, address dysfunctionality and provide certainty to our people, our industries and our agricultural sector.

Alongside taking our Master Plan through the necessary processes we have been putting in place immediate interventions where drought has manifested itself.  We have extended the power of our Water Boards to supply support to municipalities.

The process of climate change compounded by the impact of growing populations and changing economic activities also makes the planning of our long term water management more difficult. We have travelled to the major water scarcity hotspots from Eastern Cape to QwaQwa, Limpopo to the Northern Cape. Through these visits and interacting with the communities, we have developed a deep appreciation for the extent of the systemic challenges in the water sector.  I am grateful to the Premiers of these areas for their active involvement in containing these situations. I must add that my concern in some of these areas has been the political posturing of certain elements. Where we and the community have come together as one to solve the problems, we had good success, but in areas where there has been political opportunism, coupled with an aggressive approach to possible business opportunities, we have had problems.

But, on the other hand I have been encouraged by the ownership and support of the affected communities and this is where we have had our best outcomes. The most productive of these has been where the community of the Vaal has committed to work with us, after the community had come together to challenge the government in court for negligence and abuse of human rights. However, we are working together with the various stakeholders to eliminate the pollution of the Vaal. As a result of this partnership, the Save the Vaal forum have dropped seven lawsuits against the Department as all of us work to fix the Vaal together.

What we have found most satisfying about this interaction is that we have managed to build relationships with those affected communities that will help us with propagating the message of how to save water. When people are part of the solution they are less angry and when they themselves have contributed towards what can be done immediately, then we have collective ownership of the problem. 

We cannot continue business as usual. We need to find a collective response to the challenges that come as a result of climate change if we are to survive the periodic climatic variation that we are facing. Water is arguably the primary medium through which climate change impacts will be felt by our people, our ecosystems and our economies.

We would like to thank the President for accepting our request to consider the Mzimvubu project. We know that this has been a project in the pipeline from before most people in this House were born, but its benefits for the most disadvantaged part of our country will make it an extremely worthwhile investment, and can easily take the Eastern Cape completely of the Eskom grid forever because of the hydro power it will generate. It has enormous social upliftment benefits. We have received a great deal of scepticism about our Mzimvubu plan in this House, but we can confirm that we have started on Phase one and we would like to invite the President, the Deputy President and members of the Portfolio Committee to come and visit the project.

The President has highlighted how we have turned around the issuing of water use licence to 90 days. We want to commit, Mr President, because we know how passionate you feel about this matter, that we will keep to the 90 days. We are working with speed to address the backlog that has accumulated over time. In order to accelerate the process I have instituted the establishment of a Water Licensing Entity as a new unit in the Department to ensure we can live up to our promises and allow new entrants, especially Black farmers easier access to water. This reflects our serious commitment to ensure that we issue water use licenses without undue delay and ensuring that our economy grows and our people have unfettered access to water. We have learnt from our mistake, we will have better foresight and undertake to keep to the 90 days deadline.

For every crisis, opportunities have presented themselves, because when times got tough, we did not give up, we got up. Out of this crisis we have learned to rely on innovation. We are constantly seeking new sources of water. We are exploring the opportunity of private sector participation in alternative supply options like desalination, acid mine-water treatment, sand extraction, atmospheric water harvesting and smart decentralised wastewater treatment.

Madam Speaker, I’ll end on a not so pleasant note. We are mindful of the fact that there are a number of investigations underway into the Department by the SIU, the Zondo Commission, etc. We have committed our full support to the investigators and are prioritising the resultant disciplinary processes.

Finally, I want to borrow from the former Russian President, Mikhail Gorbachev, who said, “We must treat water as if it were the most precious thing in the world, the most valuable natural resource. Be economical with water! Don't waste it! We still have time to do something about this problem before it is too late.”

Honourable Members, the future of mankind is dependent on water, regardless the pettiness of politics. Let us all work together to preserve it.

I thank you

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