Working for water

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Ongoing work in South Africa’s water industry is expected to not only ensure the provision of the precious commodity, but also to respond to challenges.

In the past year, the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) has made progress in unblocking important reforms and major water resource infrastructure projects that had been delayed.

Progress has the made on the decision to establish the National Water Infrastructure Agency (NWRIA), the reconfiguration of Water Boards and the Catchment Management Agencies.

The agency is envisaged to undertake the building, operation, financing and maintenance of national water resources infrastructure assets, whilst the department retains responsibility for planning, regulation, policy and price setting.

The agency also seeks to ensure sustainable, equitable and reliable supply of water from the national water resources infrastructure.

The department recently closed the extended public consultation process of the draft NWRIA Bill that will establish the agency. The department said that the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) has put in place a task team to consult on the bill and the current lenders to the TCTA [Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority] requested an independent financial and legal review of the implications of the establishment of the NWRIA for their current loans.

“These processes are currently underway. When they are completed, we will be taking the bill back to Cabinet with a report on the consultations, recommendations for any amendments to the Bill, and recommendations for the Bill to be submitted to Parliament,” the department’s Director-General (DG), Dr Sean Phillips, told SAnews.

The department has also set up the Water Partnership Office which is a ring-fenced unit housed within the Development Bank of South Africa (DBSA).

The office has been set up to support municipalities to put in place partnerships with the private sector. This is expected to enable more private sector investment in water services, and to enable municipalities to draw more on the expertise and management capacity in the private sector.

“Standard partnership programmes are being developed in the areas of non-revenue water, management of waste-water treatment works, water -use, and the general management of the municipal water and sanitation function,” says Phillips who was appointed as DG in January 2022.

The office is jointly overseen by the DWS, the DBSA and the South African Local Government Association (SALGA). In addition, the recruitment process for the appointment of a CEO is underway in the office that is currently being managed by DBSA officials.

Water boards

The department has also been working on reconfiguring the country’s water boards in order to improve their financial sustainability and scale. This work is being done to extend services to areas that are not currently serviced and to clarify institutional confusion caused by having multiple water boards serving the same areas. Minister Senzo Mchunu has completed all the decisions regarding the reconfiguration with work is now at implementation phase.

Earlier this year, Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Water and Sanitation expressed concern that as of 31 December 2022, water boards were owed R16.1 billion due to the non-payment by municipalities’ clients. This, said the committee, negatively impacts the board’s ability to raise funds for capital projects.

Asked about the state of these entities, the Director-General said these are “in a relatively good state,” but are all affected by the problem of non-payment by municipalities.

“Unless this problem is addressed, the financial sustainability of the water boards will increasingly be put at risk.”

The department is consulting municipalities on measures to improve revenue collection by the boards. Interventions include bulk prepaid meters to be installed by water boards for municipalities and legal processes to attach municipal bank accounts where necessary.

It also includes the consistent enforcement of water limitations/restrictions for non-paying municipalities as well as collaboration with National Treasury to withhold equitable share allocations for municipalities not paying their current invoices from water boards.

Reliability of supply

While government has made good progress in increasing access to water infrastructure since 1994, municipal challenges remain with the key issue being the reliability of water supply to communities. According to the department, more than 90% of the country’s households now have access to at least a Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) level of service in terms of water supply.

“However, the reliability of the water supply through municipal water distribution services has deteriorated markedly over the last ten years, so that only 68% of householders now receive a reliable service.

“This means that while water services infrastructure may be in place, it often does not function properly or does not provide water of an adequate quality, due to poor maintenance and operation by municipalities,” explains Dr Phillips.

The DWS aims to ensure that the remaining 10% of households that do not have supply, obtain access.

“In this regard, the department is prioritising working with water boards and municipalities to extend water distribution infrastructure to all areas that are not yet supplied.

“For example, the department is working with Lepelle Northern Water and the Mopani District Municipality in Limpopo to ensure the installation of distribution infrastructure to communities in and around Giyani that have never had piped water.

“The department prioritises these projects with its Regional Bulk Infrastructure Grant and Water Services Infrastructure Grant which it allocates to municipalities.”

In addition, the Minister and the department engage with municipalities on an ongoing basis.

“The Minister has prioritised the municipalities with the most deteriorated water and sanitation services and in many of these the Minister and mayors have agreed on turnaround action plans which the department is supporting the municipalities to implement.”

The department is also addressing the issue through the strengthening of its regulatory functions for municipal water and sanitation service. It is working on revised minimum norms and standards for these services. It is also in the process of standardising its responses to non-compliance with these norms and standards across all its regional offices.

Proposed amendments to the Water Service Act that will enable the Minister to intervene more effectively where there is gross and persistent noncompliance with national norms and standards is also receiving attention.


Meanwhile, the country has over the years, seen more incidences of flooding which “have mainly affected water services infrastructure, with considerable damage to water and sanitation services infrastructure in eThekwini - in particular during the KwaZulu-Natal floods during Easter last year.”

National water resource infrastructure such as dams have withstood the floods well and DWS has been releasing water from the dams to protect them as and when required in terms of the hydrological rules governing such releases.

In addition, the department is encouraging municipalities to design and build water services infrastructure with flood-resistance in mind. The department is also encouraging municipalities not to allow the building of human settlements within the 100 year flood lines of rivers.

Water use licenses

Meanwhile, the department has also cleared the backlog in the issuing of water use licenses within 90 days as highlighted by President Cyril Ramaphosa in the 2023 State of the Nation Address.

This feat was achieved through cooperation between the DWS and Operation Vulindlela wherein the department received technical support from Vulilndlela to implement a plan for the granting of water-use licences within reduced timeframes.

The department was able to do this by among others, implementing business process re-engineering on its water use licensing processes (with support facilitated by Operation Vulindlela); the training of staff; the temporarily moving staff to regions with large backlogs of license applications to assist with removing the backlog.

In addition, the department is also in the process of advertising and recruiting more staff for water use licensing which will enable it to process closer to 100% of new applications within 90 days.

“There has been a positive response from business and industry. However, they would like us to improve further, which we intend to do,” says the department’s DG.

Established in October 2020, Vulindlela aims to drive a far-reaching economic reform agenda for the country to shift its economic growth trajectory and enable investment and job creation. The operation is a joint initiative of the Presidency and National Treasury to accelerate the implementation of structural reforms.

The quest to better the country’s water sector is clearly in progress. –