Water services in South Africa deteriorating – despite billions spent on projects

Water and sanitation minister Senzo Mchunu says that there is an “anomaly” in South Africa where municipal water services continue to decline – despite his department making substantial grant allocations to various projects.

In his budget vote speech delivered to parliament on Friday (13 May), Mchunu noted that R37.4 billion has been allocated over the next three years for conditional infrastructure grants for municipal water services.

This includes R19 billion for the Regional Bulk Infrastructure Grant and R14 billion for the Water Services Infrastructure Grant. These grants will be spent on 313 different projects across the country, he said.

“It is an anomaly that municipal water services continue to decline while we make these very substantial grant allocations. Mark my words – we are going to stop this going forward – through necessary intervention guaranteed to deliver water,” the minister said.

South Africa’s recently-published Blue Drop 2022 report shows a significant decline in the country’s water quality, with 23% of municipalities flagged as being at critical risk.

Access to sufficient, safe water is a basic right enshrined by South Africa’s Constitution. The Water Services Act places the responsibility for the provision of water services on local government, while the oversight and monitoring duties are delegated to the provincial and national governments.

The 2022 report shows that 40% of the country’s water supply systems achieved microbiological water quality compliance, and 23% have achieved chemical water quality compliance. When looking at the ‘drinkability’ of the water in these systems, the data shows:

  • 48% of water supply systems are in the low-risk category;
  • 18% are in the medium-risk category;
  • 11% are in the high-risk category;
  • 23% are in the critical risk category.

While the country’s major metropoles still have safe drinking water, the report flags concerns in more rural and isolated municipalities.

Mchunu flagged non-payment by municipalities as a major concern for the delivery of water services in the country, noting that the Water Trading Entity – which manages water infrastructure and resources, and the sale of raw water – is owed almost R25 billion from customers.

Municipalities and water boards account for 65% of this debt, Mchunu said. Municipalities owed the water boards just under R14 billion, due to non-payment by their water users. This in turn resulted in the water boards owing the Department R7.6 billion. Direct municipal debt to the department amounted to R8 billion.

The WTE has been allocated R9.55 billion over the MTEF to augment its budget for the development and management of national water resource infrastructure. In total, the medium-term expenditure estimate for the Water Trading Entity is R51.6 billion, consisting of R16.4 billion, R17.2 billion and R18 billion in 2022/23, 2023/24 and 2024/25 respectively.

“It is critical that government as a whole addresses the problem of poor revenue management and debts in the water sector,” Mchunu said.

“If this problem is not addressed, we will not see a sustainable improvement in water and sanitation services. The underlying problem that we all need to focus on is weak billing and revenue collection at a municipal level,” he said.


Read: Government to issue ‘boil water notices’ as South Africa’s tap water quality tanks

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Water services in South Africa deteriorating – despite billions spent on projects