Salga questions wisdom of water cuts
Publish date: 05 December 2017
Issue Number: 536
Diary: Legalbrief Environmental
The battling Water Ministry's tactic of cutting water supply to defaulting municipalities may not be the most effective one, experts warned last week, writes Legalbrief Environmental. The SA Local Government Association (Salga) says some of the measures imposed on municipalities, such as recent threats to funding or water supply, may not necessarily help the debt crisis. According to a News24 report, Salga acting CEO Lance Joel told a joint committee meeting in Parliament last week that some of the mechanisms used to penalise ailing municipalities, such as Section 216 of the Constitution, may not help the cause. ‘Section 216 is a blunt instrument in that it solves short term problems by creating larger complications. Withholding the equitable share of funds to these municipalities punishes the community and other stakeholders and not the officials responsible for mismanagement. The net effect... is that it escalates local tensions and could easily lead to political upheaval,’ said Joel. Salga said there were better options than cutting off water or funds to the 30 municipalities. The best possible solution would be to give space for Salga, National Treasury and the Department of Water, specifically the Water Trading Entity, to do due diligence on the current impasse. Ministers agreed that Cabinet's inter-ministerial committee, led by the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta), should take the lead on the debt crisis, and use the inter-government relations framework to enact a dispute resolution mechanism. It should include all roleplayers, including Salga, the Department of Water, Treasury and Cogta. They will meet within 14 days, effectively extending the 8 December deadline. The committee will sit again on 24 January, 2018, after the Christmas break, where all roleplayers are expected to bring revised plans.
The pending water cuts to 30 defaulting municipalities across the country’s nine provinces have been slammed as unconstitutional and unfair punishment to ordinary residents. According to a report on the IoL site, Salga's executive director of municipal infrastructure services, Jean de la Harpe, said the issue of the rising R10.7bn water debt owed by 186 municipalities was far deeper and that the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) needed to find other alternatives to deal with the defaulters. ‘Some of the end-users have been paying for water but it is the municipalities that aren’t paying this to the DWS. Also there are indigent families that cannot afford to pay for water and they will be hugely disadvantaged should the DWS proceed with the cut-offs,’ said De la Harpe. ‘This move will affect public health services and punish the end-user, and it does not guarantee that the debt will be settled,’ she warned. Last week, Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane said water suspensions were not meant to hurt consumers. ‘We are not punishing the end-user; we are pleading with those who provide to the end-users to take some responsibility and pay for the services we are providing to them,’ the report quotes Mokonyane as saying.
Municipal water debt is expected to balloon by an alarming R1.5bn a year if the culture of non-payment continues, the Water Trading Entity said last week. According to a News24 report, for the first six months of the financial year, debt has grown by R788m, said Water Trading Entity acting chief financial officer Paul Nel. ‘We estimate if nothing gets done it's going to grow (by) about R1.5bn every year. That is money that should be used elsewhere,’ Nel emphasised at a media briefing by Mokonyane. As reported previously in Legalbrief Environmental, of the 186 municipalities indebted to the Department of Water and Sanitation, 30 have received notice of water cuts if their debt older than 60 days is not paid before 8 December. ‘So there is just a culture of non-payment,’ Nel said, adding that municipal debt had been growing for more than seven years. Mokonyane said the 30 municipalities owe the department R10.7bn in total.
The Department of Water and Sanitation has become dysfunctional as a result of staff shortages, corruption and policy changes, the SA Water Caucus (SAWC) said in a report released last week. According to a BusinessLIVE report, media reports have piled up about the department’s inaction over the drought in the Western Cape, about billions of rand in municipal debt and ballooning costs for projects such as the Mzimvubu dam in the Eastern Cape and the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. The report, which is based on publicly available information as well as access to information requests, showed the department had 900 vacant posts and since 2008 has had seven different Directors-General. There was serious concern about financial management, the SAWC said. The department has overspent on some programmes and underspent on others. The Auditor-General has qualified its accounts because it lacked adequate controls. The department complained that its budget was cut but it was not collecting the money owed by municipalities and other water users, with about R9.8bn owed by end-March. The department’s policy direction was unclear, SAWC said. Rather than implementing the National Water Act properly, the Minister had proposed a raft of new plans, Bills and reviews. No Blue Drop or Green Drop reports into the functioning of water and wastewater treatment works had been released since 2013, the SAWC said, which had serious implications for water safety and quality. Issuance and compliance monitoring of water-use licences was in disarray, it added.