Nelson Mandela Bay Metro’s water failure underlines need for national plan on Day Zeros
Water runs out as metro drowns in incompetence
South Africa must prepare better for more Day Zeros and water shedding.
The recent reports of Nelson Mandela Bay Metro (NMB) reaching day zero are of course very concerning, but it is not the first South African city or town to get close to day zero and neither will it be the last. Cape Town made global headlines in 2018 as it neared day zero. During the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, it was quite apparent that many smaller towns and villages have been living with day zero for years. It is estimated that about 20 million people have little to no access to safe or reliable water supplies, an unacceptable situation.
South Africa is a water scarce country and the onslaught of climate shocks on top of failing infrastructure and local government means that water quality and safe supply needs to be addressed with urgency.
Day zero is and will be the water challenge of the next decade for South Africa.
The national Department of Water and Sanitation must complete a “No Drop” assessment for the whole country, which must be a preemptive analysis on water losses as well as water scarcity. South Africa faces a deficit of 3.8 billion kilolitres of water by 2030. The best solutions do not always have to be the most expensive or the biggest, but they require planning and construction well ahead of day zero.
Discussions on NMB’s pending day zero began as early as 2019 and perhaps could have alleviated this problem if the authorities had started to act early enough. The municipality attributes this lack of water to the effect of climate change but the reality is that the situation in NMB is not just an environmental one, it is also a political one with a circus of political parties fighting with each other. The NMB metro has developed good plans but it is a dysfunctional municipality. It is believed that about two to three weeks ago, the Municipality refused offers of help from DWS, suggesting that they had no understanding of the consequences of the crisis.
The early warning of a day zero should have put effort to reducing the leaks in the metro, that loses 80 million litres of water a day to leaks. In addition, the Department of Water and Sanitation restricted extraction amounts but instead of reducing water use early in the disaster, the metro continued to over-extract its water resources by three times the required amount. In 2019/20, the metro failed to use R183 million from the drought relief grant, which had to be returned to the National Treasury.
And now that NMB is hitting day zero the local council is heading down a path of false solutions. What is wrong with our politicians who keep thinking the more money you throw at something the better? The council is discussing two desalination plants for the area, but this is too late to rescue the metro and is quite expensive. These plants take about three to five years to build depending on the size.
In a municipality plagued by corruption, large tenders would just lead to more mismanagement and corruption.
The NMB municipality is not the only one that is guilty of failing to deliver basic services. Municipalities across the country have failed to plan for climate shocks but also, the poor state of municipalities has resulted in local government being unable to respond to the poor quality of water, the poor state of wastewater treatment, the lack of access to water and the quantity of safe drinking water available.
The key priorities for NMB right now are to practice real democracy: involve civil society, ordinary citizens, community leaders, religious groups, youth, women, in decision making and guidance. The metro has messed up and cannot solve this without involving the people who put them in power. Now is the time to be open, transparent and democratic. The Gift of the Givers has shown that civil society can play a pivotal role.
Moving forward from here, the metro must clearly and publicly explain how it will ensure water for its communities. The plan to dig boreholes, use water tanks and other short term plans should be shared. It must also consult people and develop medium- and long-term plans that could include reducing water flow, creating a stepped tariff for water users, building networks of volunteer engineers, and working with citizen science groups and activists to help monitor water resources.
The people of Nelson Mandela Bay Metro are entitled to a realistic plan and a municipality that delivers it. If the metro can’t deliver, and soon, then national government should step in and work with the people. There is just too much on the line not to.