The government’s inability to manage doomed scarce resources


A woman walks with water near Coffee Bay in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, May 6, 2014. EPA / Kevin

Water pollution in areas where local authorities dumped raw sewage into rivers and the failure of successive administrations to implement crucial sections of the national water law – 20 years later – featured among the crucial issues discussed at a water symposium hosted by AgriSA in Somerset West on Monday.

The government’s ability to manage the country’s water – a key ingredient in economic development – is in decline. As competition for water intensifies, authorities, from municipalities to the national government, fail to effectively manage this scarce resource, and the economy loses.

These were some of the questions raised at a water symposium hosted by AgriSA in Somerset West on Monday, where discussions ranged from water pollution that had become endemic in some areas where local authorities were dumping raw sewage in rivers, the failure of successive administrations to implement crucial articles of the National Water Law – 20 years later.

Professor Wits Mike Muller, engineer and former Director General of Waters and Forests, spoke of the need for South Africa to be a “capable and developing state”.

The state must be a good manager, but South Africa’s ability to do so has diminished. Our ability to manage our water resources has diminished… The government really has problems. Don’t underestimate these issues.

South African agriculture has had to operate in uncertain climates, both weather and political. While there were some certainties about global climate change, such as an increase in temperature, Muller pointed out that there were many uncertainties about how climate change would play out on the ground at the regional level.

What was certain was that this would have consequences for water resources, and therefore agricultural production was likely to shift around the world, leading to changes in trade. Large areas of Russia, normally too cold for agriculture, could be opened up to agriculture. But the details were not known.

We don’t really know yet, we can only say what might happen, not what will happen. The government should take the lead in this area – but it’s in your best interest to help them do so, ”Muller said.

Muller and other speakers urged the Department of Water and Sanitation to implement the national water law, which successive administrations had failed to do. One of the most pressing issues was to establish the nine watershed management agencies in South Africa set out in legislation. This was supposed to be done in 1998, but so far only two of the nine have been established.

The aim of these agencies is to delegate water management to a regional level, and to involve local stakeholders and communities in water management.

We have a great water law, but we often do not follow it. AgriSA needs to hit the table, ”said Muller.

Muller criticized Water Affairs for issuing water licenses for coal mining in areas of Mpumalanga which had high agricultural potential due to water resources.

We cannot allow some of the best agricultural land in the country to be dug up… The National Development Plan says “do not develop coal mines in areas with high water resources”. Why, when we have the opportunity to drive in one direction, do we drive in another?

Anil Singh, deputy director general of the Department of Water and Sanitation, admitted that the department had not established watershed management agencies. One of the reasons, he said, was that the unions opposed the agencies.

But the thought now is that we have to finalize this. “

Singh pointed to the decline in water quality and pointed out the failure of the local government to deal with it.

A crucial question is how the municipalities deal with water quality and pollution, which is endemic in our country. This is the sixth administration in our democracy and we are seeing a decline in services. It is of great concern to the government.

Singh also conceded that the department was struggling to finalize the water allocation reform policy, which agriculture had pushed to complete unsuccessfully.

Western Cape Agriculture Dr Ivan Meyer, MEC, said Western Cape agriculture employed 16% of the workforce, including 231,000 people as farm laborers and 250,000 people working in agricultural processing .

In 2017, agriculture in the Western Cape generated R45 billion. Forty-five percent of South Africa’s agricultural exports came from the Western Cape.

Water and sanitation lost billions of rand due to corruption and mismanagement when Nomvula Mokonyane was minister. She left the department in shambles. At the time, the auditor general said water and sanitation had the worst record of unsuccessful and unnecessary spending of any department.

Muller told delegates: “Are we at the end of the road or starting a new chapter? It’s probably about half and half. Ultimately, it’s your decision. DM

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