Water will always be a political issue.

By Jonathan Erasmus, CAN Project Manager 

The biggest unknown in South Africa’s upcoming general election will be just how our water crisis will impact voting patterns. 

We learnt in the 2021 local government election that our regular, scheduled and sometimes weeklong unplanned power blackouts, bizarrely referred to as load-shedding, was a major issue. The ANC bled votes across the country. 

They of course blamed the Stage 6 that enveloped the country that fateful election weekend on sabotage. We have since learnt that the claim of sabotage to be incorrect with regular bouts of Stage 6 having occurred since then. 

In Gauteng, the single biggest issue right now is scarcity of water, in KZN it is both scarcity and the pollution of river systems and, in the Western Cape, a water crisis is never far away. Too, water-related violence has erupted in all three provinces. 

These are our three most populous provinces, account for 56% of the total population and they dictate the real winners and losers. 

They are also the most highly contestable provinces this upcoming election as polls suggest.

Therefore, a trigger point like water will be a campaigning issue.

In March while I sat in a Department of Water and Sanitation KZN Water Services Summit hosted in Durban a colleague reminded me about how this prediction of no water, polluted water and water related violence was foretold in 2008 and the government scientist who made the predication was summarily fire.

He was referring to water scientist Dr Antony Turton, then employed by the government funded Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) who was expected to deliver a paper at a water quality summit titled “Three Strategic Water Quality Challenges that Parliamentarians Need to Know About.” He was barred from presenting the paper. 

Turton’s report summarized the problem South Africa faced around water quality, and therefore security, into what he called “three drivers” namely dilution capacity, spatial development patterns and historical legacy.

Our opinion pages today are filled with many of the statements contained in his then controversial report but at the time the ANC government thought it was doing a good job and such statements undermined the ANC leadership. That was never said publicly, but its clear there was pressure from above. 

Dilution capacity simply meant we do not have enough excess water in the water system to naturally dilute our water sources. He said all pollutants and effluent streams will “increasingly need to be treated to ever higher standards before being discharged into communal waters or deposited in landfills.” 

His reference to spatial development patterns singling out Gauteng cities, noted that none of them were built by proper water resources creating an environment for scarcity unless capacity was created, and the last driver of historical legacy spoke to South Africa’s violent past and how this should be seen as a warning that future bouts of violence are likely around water related issues.

Turton was of course right. He may not have been the only one who made the predications, but his public firing makes his position the most well-known. We are living the “three drivers” right now.

Fast-forward to the March 2024 water summit I was attending, and the evidence placed on the projector screen by water officials clearly shows that almost every single municipality across the country is facing some form of water services collapse from bulk water reticulation to wastewater treatment.

And there, in this KZN summit, water services general manager after water services government official stood up and told us about the dire situations they face. Here again were our top officials, much like Turton nearly two decades ago, waving the red flag.

Of greater concern was that every single municipality had clear and defined opportunities to arrest the decline but, in most cases, chose not to until it was too late. 

But the problem was, has and always will be a political one and unless there is a will, beyond the election cycle, the problems we face today will not be resolved. 

We have seen this play out before, and we have mostly been let down. The problem any future government faces, both in the provinces and nationally, is that unless they make water security a top issue, their political party will always be held accountable for its scarcity and economic ramifications that follow. 

Loadshedding will always be equated to the ANC for as long as the party exists, much like the National Party, which no longer exists, is synonymous with draconian Apartheid legislation. 

And if South Africa wants to be a true global political power like our current government is striving towards, then it needs to focus on getting this fundamental basic right of water secured. It’s a political decision. Finish and klaar.

This column first appeared in The Witness on 28 March 2024.