Water and Sanitation Minister Gugile Nkwinti is holding consultation meetings in the Eastern Cape as confusion and fear mounts among local communities over the construction of the planned R15 billion Umzimvubu Water Project, which is set to boost the economy of the region.
The Umzimvubu River catchment area lies within one of the poorest regions in South Africa.
The project, one of the province’s biggest infrastructure programmes, has been in the pipeline since 1962.
The dams to be built will be used to supply households and industry with water, as well as irrigate agriculture and generate hydropower.
According to the Herald website, President Cyril Ramaphosa, speaking during an ANC rally last month, said the water project would become a priority if the party won the May election.
Nkwinti said they had planned to start with advanced infrastructure development at Ntabelanga Dam, one of the three planned dams that form part of the water project, on January 14, but that could not happen as he was engaged in further consultative meetings with affected communities.
Late last month, Nkwinti visited Mbokazi village in Lusikisiki, where the Mbokazi Dam is planned to be situated along the Umzimvubu River, to allay community fears that the dam would not be built.
For three weeks the minister visited communities in the area where the dam will be built. His first visit was with the amaBhele traditional leaders and their communities.
“The traditional leaders told me that they had never been consulted about the construction of the dam.
“We agreed to postpone the January 14 advanced infrastructure development and instead run workshops with the communities,” he said.
He then visited the communities and traditional leaders of amaMpondomise regarding the construction of Lalini Dam, which is primarily going to be used to generate hydropower.
Ntabelanga Dam will have a storage capacity of 490 million cubic metres, while Lalini Dam will have a storage capacity of 232 million cubic metres.
“We want to start with advanced infrastructure in Ntabelanga because that is what we have budgeted for at the moment.
“Those funds are available right now and we are ready to kick off and start there as soon as those communities have satisfied themselves with the process,” he said.
The minister said advanced infrastructure development was expected to start no later than this month.
He lashed out at some people who were complaining that government was no longer planning to construct the Lalini Dam.
This comes after a group of people protested during the voter registration weekend, demanding that Lalini Dam be prioritised.
“Remember, you are talking about two [Lalini and Ntabelanga] dams in one river [Tsitsa River], which is going to serve many communities. Nobody says Lalini is not going to happen, but there is no budget for Lalini now.”
“The budget for Ntabelanga is here for advanced infrastructure for the next nine months. Whenever it starts, it’s going to take us nine months to complete that and then start the construction of the actual dam,” he said.
Nkwinti said R130 million would be spent on Ntabelanga Dam’s advanced infrastructure. The dam, which will be primarily used for irrigation, is budgeted to cost R1.9 billion, while Lalini Dam is expected to cost R3 billion.
He said the entire project was R15 billion, which was inclusive of R7.5 billion that was meant for reticulation.
“When we went to National Treasury, nobody said Lalini will never happen. All that we said was that at the moment there is no budget for Lalini. Even for Ntabelanga, there is no budget for the dam itself. The budget that we have is for advanced infrastructure,” Nkwinti said.
He said they still had to convince National Treasury and Cabinet that money should be spent on Lalini Dam as it would produce just 23MW of hydroelectricity power, compared with the 1 600MW that Mbokazi Dam would generate.
He said there was no competition between the Lalini, Ntabelanga and Mbokazi dams, and asked all the communities to set up committees that would represent them.
A feasibility study for Mbokazi Dam would start in March, Nkwinti said.
Portia Makhanya, head of water and sanitation in the Eastern Cape, said: “The [Mbokazi Dam] feasibility study will be in different phases and will include discussions about people who will be moved from their homesteads and the possibility of job opportunities.”
OR Tambo District Municipality councillor William Ngozi said: “We are not going to allow Mbokazi Dam to be sabotaged. It is going to happen in our lifetime.”
He said a major part of the confusion was caused by including the word Umzimvubu in the project name as it was situated in Mbokazi, Lusikisiki, while the focus seemed to be in Tsolo, where Tsitsa River is located.
Ngozi said the issue of the dam was causing a lot of conflict.