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Clean water is our right, but it is slipping through the cracks

IT’S ONE thing to flick the light switch and find that you remain in darkness; it’s quite another when you can’t flush the toilet.

We seem to be heading for a period that may well become known as the dark thirst. We don’t have to.

The South Africa we all know and love is endowed with many natural resources, but water is not one of them. We live in the world’s 30th-driest country (try saying that when you wake up and can’t have a glass of water). On average we enjoy about 500mm of rainfall a year, compared with a world average of 860mm a year. Being able to play golf about 300 days a year comes at a price. What’s more, our rain doesn’t fall evenly across the country, so we have to collect, store and manage it.

Over the years we have built some proper dams. In a previous life I was involved in raising the debt funding for and subsequently making a market in the bonds issued to finance the first stage of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, the Katse Dam.

The project, a water-transfer and hydropower-generation joint venture between South Africa and Lesotho, transformed a stream in the mountains into a dam with a capacity of more than 1,900-million cubic metres.

The dam was 98% full at the end of January this year and supplies billions of litres of water into South Africa via a 45km tunnel (built by the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority, using the same technology as the European Channel Tunnel, which came later). The tunnel feeds water into the Ash River and on to many homes in South Africa.

It was an extraordinary technological feat — an engineering victory. The project involved many skills and knowledge sets coming together to produce yet another spectacular example of human endeavour.

Dam walls are built with convexity, both vertically and horizontally, to work with the force of the water. As the pressure builds up, so it is dispersed evenly away from the centre, if anything pushing the structure deeper into the mountain into which it is embedded and ultimately being relieved through the sluice gates, generating electricity as it flows.

At some stage during construction, the wall passes through the vertical — that’s when the engineers invited us bankers for a site tour, just to show us who’s boss. Paralysed with fear, we soon enough respected the engineers and other hard hats who built what we funded. I remain in awe of the principles of physics harnessed by man in pursuit of his continued survival on the planet.

So, I was angry and disappointed when I read an article in Business Day on the actual and potential water shortages in Mahikeng, Nelspruit and Bloemfontein. The scary part is that the shortages could have been prevented. We, the people, are not looking after things. Leakage, maladministration, departing expertise, lack of maintenance — human error is at the centre of it all.

I understand the backlog in expenditure on water resources is at R2.7bn, while the backlog on electricity is more than 10 times that. What is the problem? We have the money. Either we just don’t know what to do or we don’t care enough to get around to it. This isn’t the Soccer World Cup or even the African Nations Cup, so it doesn’t have a deadline or a fan base and it’s not on television. But I promise you it’s more important and it affects our everyday lives more directly. Where will we get the water to make the beer to drink when we win?

Silting is a problem, with some dams now 10% water and 90% mud. Leakages from municipal water sources are now reported at 38% — that’s incredible. It is a waste of a scarce resource and of revenue, estimated at about R7bn at present.

The challenge is not just scarcity, but quality too. There was a time when we were the world drinking water champions — really. The Rand Water Board’s product was regarded as the best drinking water in the world. Bottled, purified water was the preserve of European countries. In Africa, we drank from the gods and what we stored was clean and pure. No longer — what a shame.

The point that worried me the most in the report was that the last remaining engineer was leaving one municipality. Are you crazy? How can you begin to think that you can maintain a competent enterprise that has at its core scientific and technical expertise without the presence of a team of engineers, let alone letting the last one go?

What made him leave? What is the root cause for the drastic dissemination of skill sets in South African institutions, government departments and parastatals, in particular, but also in private enterprise?

They’ve lost faith, that’s what. Their professional code of conduct will not allow them to sign off and be complicit with preventable decay. Their personal integrity cannot abide the unacceptable standards that have become acceptable practice. Gradual and practically invisible rot from the inside has dire consequences.

We’d better find the causes and stop them.

I suspect that we’ll find that the flaw lies in leadership — selection of the weak by the weak. It must be unbearable to go to work and be responsible for something you don’t understand. Call those engineers back, become their partners, embrace their knowledge and listen to their experience.

Clean, healthy water for all — it’s our constitutional right.

Source: BD Live


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