Voices

Leaders must bow their heads in shame over the state of our water systems

2018-11-06 22:10

Leaders appear to be doing nothing to stop the grotesque destruction of our water systems, writes Thabang Motsohi

The grotesque and deliberate destruction of the once-pristine Vaal ecosystem and catchment area compels us to have a hard rethink about the primary measure of performance outcomes we must adopt for our municipalities.

The scale of the destruction is as deep and long-term as it is unconscionable.

The unexpected announcement, by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni during his medium-term budget policy presentation on October 24 of an intervention reveals a welcome reawakening of consciousness and resolve to finally do something about it.

We are not blind to the timing and political calculation behind it. This is the silly season when political parties miraculously find the energy and resolve to execute mandates and obligations they have neglected for the previous five years.

The solution as presently conceived involves the use of the military engineering division for intervention. Although this is welcome, what is required is a long-term structural and organisational solution to replace the incapacity in municipalities.

The best option is to transfer the responsibility for managing and upgrading sewerage treatment plants from municipalities to a new special-purpose entity that will assume this responsibility countrywide.

Chapter 2 section 24 of the Constitution is very specific about environment rights and responsibilities bestowed upon us.

But for almost two decades the municipalities of the Vaal Triangle have systematically contravened this constitutional mandate.

The irony of the situation is that we receive clean water from the mountains of Lesotho via the Katse Dam and its delivery channels.

When it reaches the Vaal catchment area we recklessly allow raw and untreated sewage to contaminate it and expect Rand Water to clean it up and deliver the consumable product to the rest of Gauteng.

If the sight of raw sewage floating openly in the streets of the suburbs is unimaginable, why then is it expected that it will be tolerated in the poor communities?

According to the Save the Vaal Environment, a local NGO that works to protect the blighted river: “The situation has reached crisis point at the Vaal with negative impacts on the economy and job creation and the poorest communities are the most vulnerable, especially with regard to health risks.”

A river is not just a source of water, important as that is. It is much more than that; it is a sanctuary and also a place of great cultural significance among Africans.

If you listen to many songs, including the seminal Meet Me At The River, you grasp that it is also the place where young women and men meet to court, to partake in the rituals of becoming men and women in their own right.

So the river, “emfuleni”, may be understood as a place of privacy, purity and becoming.

And that’s why soiling the Vaal River isn’t just a disgrace, it is a desecration.

The problem of raw sewage in the river systems is not limited to Emfuleni.

Hartbeesport Dam is another depressing sight of ecological degradation and destruction.

First the water hyacinth has grown furiously and choked the surface. Then blue-green Microcystis algae turned the dam into a massive bowl of pea-like soup.

The hyacinth and algae are caused by a massive and constant inflow of raw sewage, which floats down the Jukskei River from Johannesburg and upstream.

There are other factors that contribute to the growth of the hyacinth and algae but the failure of Madibeng municipality to manage its sewerage treatment plants optimally is the biggest cause.

The Hartbeesport Dam has now gained notoriety as the biggest sewage pond in South Africa that’s surrounded by very expensive real estate.

The political leadership at the helm of the water affairs and sanitation department should bow their heads in shame.

It is clear from how the management and political leadership in the municipalities have failed to carry out their constitutional mandate and neglected the living conditions of the poor to such a terrible state that we have a very low level of consciousness for social justice.

They don’t deserve to continue in those positions because the problem has been in existence for more than a decade.

The availability of clean and safe drinking water and the efficient treatment of raw sewage, constitute primary requirements for ensuring acceptable living conditions in all our communities.

They must be set as primary performance criteria and outcomes above everything else.

In my new book Fit for Purpose I deal with the key drivers of systemic failures in state entities and municipalities.

There is a prevailing myth that when the strategic purpose and vision of an organisation have been articulated and the required and appropriate skills are assembled within a suitable structure, the organisation will somehow magically develop the ability to self-propel itself towards achieving its set goals.

The truth is that it requires more consistent effort to understand the potential impediments and constraints in the operating context and ensure that the organisation is fit at all times to deliver its mandate.

The collapse of state institutions and municipalities is driven primarily by the deployment of unqualified and incompetent party cadres to key positions.

For many of these entities a change in their business strategies and structural reorganisation is unavoidable to set them on a new growth path.

In 1993 a close friend of mine who had worked for some time within the UN Development Programme system made a profound statement that the biggest risk our democracy would face in the future is the failure to manage the state procurement processes effectively after taking over the reins of power.

He said the huge size of the budgets and that most of the incoming public officials had limited prior experience in the public service posed the risk of collapsing the state and grossly impairing the credibility of the governing party.

The Zondo commission and others are providing ample proof that his warning was not off the mark.

Motsohi is an organisational strategist and author of Fit for Purpose. Find it via thabangjmotsohi.com

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November 18 2018