WATER IN SOUTH AFRICA IS A story of failing infrastructure and dry taps. Only one-third of South Africa’s water infrastructure is operational. The government’s inability to maintain existing infrastructure, as a result of austerity policies and political malfeasance, has worsened working people’s livelihoods. Inability to stop the leaks causes nearly half of all water loss. Leaking pipes are also a serious health risk when 50,000 litres of sewage leaks into South Africa’s rivers every second.
In Nelson Mandela Bay there is an imminent water crisis in which the city’s dams are predicted to run dry by July 2023. The municipality received upwards of R700 million from the National Treasury to repair its ailing infrastructure in 2018. A sizable portion of this money, R300 million, was diverted elsewhere, while the rest was sent back to Treasury.
Who’s to blame?
The municipality currently emphasises the role of the drought we are facing, the worst in the last 100 years. They would like us to forget that enough water was lost to leaks in the last year to have filled all the city’s dams. And they would like to blame ordinary residents for over-consumption.
The role of industry in water consumption is also largely left out of the discussion. Forty percent of Nelson Mandela Bay’s GDP resides in the auto industry. Auto manufacturing is a highly water-intensive sector. Yet the Volkswagen Group South Africa plant in Kariega has operated with little or no disruption. Meanwhile, the Chris Hani settlement in Kwa-Nobuhle, less than a five-minute drive away, sat without running water for seven months last year.
In South Africa, agriculture is responsible for 60% of water use. Citrus farms in the nearby Sundays River Valley also continue operations unabated, while the very workers on those farms return home to dry taps in areas like Kirkwood, Paterson, and Bersheba.
And Coca-Cola has a bottling factory in Gqeberha. The company is notorious for its egregious water consumption at the expense of nearby communities. The water crisis is becoming a battle for who gets what water supply is left. Water scarcity is a threat to the city’s survival. Will the municipality continue to supply the city’s industrial elite? Or will the working class defend their constitutional right to water?
Crisis brings opportunity: the neoliberal fix
In August 2022, the National Department of Water and Sanitation led a closed workshop, titled Creating Water Resilience in NMB: Medium & Long–Term Perspectives. In attendance were municipal officials, civil society representatives, and the Amatola Water Board. Also present were officials from the World Resources Institute and the World Bank.
Not surprisingly, two officials from the World Bank gave presentations which focused on developing a market orientation: government must foster an enabling environment that gives the water department autonomy to manage its own finance and freedom from political oversight. They propose a public-private partnership with mechanisms such as performance-based contracts and management contractors.
We see in NMB the Shock Doctrine unfolding under the guise of a crisis response to a man-made disaster. Calls for more investment, public-private partnerships, and municipal restructuring point to yet a further assault on the working people of NMB. The South African government is imposing a strategy of neoliberal austerity to confront NMB’s Day Zero, and its vehicle for investment will come in the form of a regional desalination project.
This highly capital-intensive project was proposed as a window of opportunity for the private sector, through private-public partnerships. The price tag would be approximately R1.2 billion. That’s the cost of maintaining the entire city’s water system annually. For that amount, the municipality would end up with an additional 25 megaliters per day – less than 10% of the municipality’s consumption. This is a poor supply for the price.
Meanwhile, how would desalination threaten NMB’s fishing sector? Or the health of the ocean? And how could the municipality power such a facility in the midst of loadshedding?
Last year in California, a proposed desalination plant was defeated by civil society groups who criticised the project for its high cost, negative environmental impact, and effective privatisation of water. Critics point to desalination as a profit-driven techno-fix jumping on the Green Transition train. In terms of water infrastructure, the situation could not be any more dire, but the people responsible for solving this crisis only see dollar signs.
Tony Martel is a PhD Candidate in Development Studies at Nelson Mandela University and working on the Transition Township Project in KwaZakhele, Gqeberha.