Drought status in South Africa: briefing by Department of Water and Sanitation

Water and Sanitation

11 November 2015
Chairperson: Mr M Johnson (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee received a briefing on the status of drought in the country from the Department of Water and Sanitation that gave a broad overview of the current water supply situation in the country. Six provinces were now under observation with four (Kwazulu-Natal, Limpopo, Free State and North West Province) having been declared drought-stricken areas, and two (Mpumalanga and Western Cape) now being monitored. The department gave an indication of their short-, medium- and long-term strategies for addressing water shortages.

While the DA members of the committee were unhappy with the presentation, saying that it lacked substance, more detail came out in the discussion. Members asked about acid mine drainage and about progress in the troubled municipality of Madibeng. Members had heard about some of the department's recent successes and its methods for assessing its own drought readiness. Members discussed the department's borehole drilling programme, the potential and pitfalls of rainwater as a direct water source, and South Africa's international water sharing arrangements.

A second briefing on progress with climate change interventions could not be delivered because the meeting was interrupted by striking parliamentary staff.

Meeting report

The Chairperson conveyed the apologies of the Minister and Deputy Ministers of both Water and Sanitation and Environmental Affairs, before handing over to the Department of Water and Sanitation delegation.

Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) overview of Drought Management
Ms Deborah Mochotlhi (DDG for Water Planning, DWS) gave a broad overview of the current drought situation. She said six provinces were now under observation with four (Kwazulu-Natal, Limpopo, Free State and North West Province) having been declared drought-stricken areas, and two (Mpumalanga and Western Cape) now being monitored. The water restrictions currently being applied in Gauteng were in response to the unusually high temperatures but not a consequence of drought.

Ms Mochotlhi reminded the committee that South Africa's water resources were shared with neighbouring countries. She gave a breakdown of the sources of the country's water, and explained that as a general policy, the DWS was looking to increase the proportion of the water supply from groundwater, re-use, desalination and rainwater and fog harvesting. It was important to address water quality too, particularly where recycled water was being used.

Ms Mochotlhi described the DWS's drought mitigation measures. In the short term, it would make use of tankering to supply distressed areas and it would drill boreholes. In the medium term, it would look at desalination in coastal areas and eradicating illegal use. In the long term, it would increase the capacity of the water supply infrastructure by, for example, raising dam walls. She hoped that the drought would raise the public consciousness about water usage and lead to more efficient water use. Efficient use and better management were the first interventions that should be made, she said.

The Chairperson asked whether the DWS had a long term solution for dealing with acid mine drainage.

Mr Trevor Balzer (Chief Operations Officer: DWS) did not want to pre-empt any announcements by the Minister, but he did say that at a press conference on 1 November 2015, the Minister had said that she would announce a long-term strategy for dealing with it.

Mr L Basson (DA) was highly critical of the presentation and the DWS's response to the drought in general. He believed the department had failed the country, having been warned by scientists about the drought and done nothing. He cited the example of Madibeng municipality, whose water and sanitation department had been placed under administration. R705m had been allocated to it, but still R333m of this amount was unfunded. The presentation did not give any assurance that DWS had its problems under control, and there did not seem to be any measures in place to prevent the crisis from occurring in the first place.

Mr Balzer noted that the Minister had addressed the problems at Madibeng quite extensively in National Assembly question number 2937. He explained that placing a municipality under administration did not necessarily imply that any more money went to that municipality, but he did say that funding for an intervention into water and sanitation in Madibeng was coming from a wide range of sources. In the department's defence, Mr Balzer said that the DWS had achieved some significant successes. For example, the intervention at Majakaneng had brought water to a community which had been without a piped supply for over eight years. The upgrade to the Brits water treatment plant had also seen good progress, and an additional 20 megalitres of capacity was expected to come online in June 2016. Work had begun at Jericho, Maboloka and Lethlabile, to bring their water supplies back online.

Mr Balzer discussed the department's drought readiness measures. He explained that they used a diverse set of data including dam storage levels (present and historical), long-range weather forecasts and precipitation indices, to make projections to ascertain their risk in case of an extreme weather event.

Ms A Steyn (DA) was interested in the department drought early warning systems.

Ms Steyn asked whether DWS was represented on the national disaster management task team.

Ms Mochotlhi said that they were on this committee, where they co-operated with the Departments of Health and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. 

Ms Steyn asked for figures about the drilling of boreholes. Where had they been drilled and at what cost? Who would be responsible for maintaining them?

Ms Mochotlhi said that a plan for 77 boreholes was being implemented. Forty had been drilled already. The plan also indicated the number of households that were to be reached.

Ms Steyn asked for an estimate of the percentage of water used by unlicenced mines. She had received many complaints about this. In some areas people had been using boreholes responsibly for a hundred years, but now their boreholes were drying up because of nearby mines.

Ms Z Balindlela (DA) praised the Deputy Minister's habit of engagement with the Committee, but was disappointed at the absence of the Minister and the Director-General at the present meeting, given the seriousness of the situation. She also did not think the presentation addressed the immediate issues.

Ms J Maluleke (ANC) pointed out that the Minister had been with the Committee the previous week, and she was currently overseas.

Ms T Baker (DA) said that the real problem was not so much inefficient use as inefficient management of water. She drew attention to several long-standing water leaks in various parts of the country that had been reported to municipalities but nothing had been done.

Ms Mochotlhi assured the committee that they were active in seeking solutions to water loss. The President had announced the War On Leaks which would train young people in a range of related skills.

Ms Baker asked how many of the country's waste-water treatment plants were in good working order.

A committee member observed that the national dam storage levels, as shown in the graph on page 16 of the presentation, were still quite high, although he admitted that this was only an average, and that the situation in Kwazulu-Natal really was very serious. He noted that it might be unfair to blame the department for failures of particular municipalities. He asked DWS had investigated the cost of large-scale seawater desalination as a long-term solution.

Inkosi R Cebekhulu (IFP) raised some problems associated with rainwater harvesting. Water that ran off asbestos roofs could be contaminated and cause tuberculosis, and he had observed that tiled roofs generally seemed to contaminate rainwater. Air pollution from industry was also contaminating rainwater in some areas.

Inkosi Cebekhulu was also concerned about sewage pollution in rivers and the high consumption of water by invasive alien species.

Ms Mochotlhi said that they had a number of programmes addressing these problems, such as the River Health Programme. The Working For Water programme used to be under the DWS but had now moved to the Department of Environmental Affairs. The water pollution problem was being exacerbated by migration to urban areas, which was putting great strain on waste-water treatment facilities in some places.

Ms H Kekana (ANC) asked about the water resources that were shared between South Africa and its neighbours. How much water did the North West Province give to Botswana, for example? What was the water situation in Botswana? Could we afford to be sharing with them?

Ms Mochotlhi explained that we were operating within the confines of Southern African Development Community (SADC) protocols on shared water courses, which it was imperative to honour. Neighbouring states participated in the process of deciding how restrictions were imposed.

Ms N Bilankulu (ANC) asked whether the present drought was natural or man-made. If the former, we all needed to co-operate to find the best response, but if the latter, those responsible needed to be identified.

Ms Mochotlhi said that the second presentation would deal with this question.

Ms Bilankulu asked whether the amount of water used for agriculture could be reduced and the resulting surplus redirected to distressed municipalities.

Ms Bilankulu asked whether the department had a plan or system for capitalising on rivers that were swollen by heavy rains.

Ms Maluleke agreed.

Ms Mochotlhi said that the department's medium- to long-term plans included measures like these.

Ms Bilankulu asked about the short-, medium- and long-term plans for maintaining and upgrading our ageing infrastructure.

Ms M Khawula (EFF) spoke in Xhosa. The Chairperson summarised her submission in English. She said that we needed to go back our roots. We did not need to look at other countries to find solutions.

The Chairperson stressed that co-operation with other departments and the Agricultural Research Council would be crucial. He noted that the irrigation boards were an untransformed remnant of the apartheid era, and that the country's water supply infrastructure had been designed to support a much smaller population than the one it was now serving. Still today, there appeared to be two economies of water supply: golf courses remained verdant and green while the rest of the country was bone dry.

[Note: At this point the meeting was interrupted by striking parliamentary staff. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.]

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