Joburg’s water crisis is not just bad luck

As the Gauteng water crisis enters its third week questions are emerging about the role of City Power and Joburg Water in the perplexing inability to resolve the water outages that have affected 100 communities. The first and perhaps most troubling question is about the security of water supplies being threatened by cable theft. It is now being asked how cable theft could have occurred despite Rand Water being a national key point.

The next questions apply to contingency plans including communication with the public. These are critical in the event of something as disruptive and inconvenient as a water outage and appear not to have been optimal with Water Affairs and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane reported to have criticised Rand Water for communicating poorly with affected communities. Mokonyane is also said to have instructed Rand Water to devise a Gauteng water master plan to avert future crises.

But the sustained nature of the crisis has pointed to a further worry — poor maintenance of assets. While the chairman of Parliament’s portfolio committee on water and sanitation Mlungisi Johnson is said to have denied there is a crisis with water levels expected to normalise within the next fortnight it is unlikely affected residents consider the time frames to be acceptable.

Many are starting to ask why it has taken so long to restore water with the explanation given by Mike Muller a member of the National Planning Commission and former director-general of the then Department of Water Affairs pointing to alarming systemic failure.

According to a Sunday Times report one of the four water supply systems did not have a functional back-up electricity transformer for 10 months. According to the report the present crisis began with a transformer failure on September 15 compounded by a further power supply problem four days later which depleted water levels in remaining systems and almost completely compromised the entire system on September 21.

While this series of events could be considered bad luck it is exactly for such unlikely eventualities that backup systems should be in place. Even worse rather than unscrupulous cable thieves it may well be found that a failure by City Power to support the system caused the crisis.

With several commentators speculating that the fallout from the crisis may feed into 2016 local government election results there is little doubt that resolving it has become a priority. For those asking for explanations it might be instructive to examine the role of the City of Johannesburg’s water and electricity utilities Joburg Water and City Power.

The spinning-off of the basic functions of water electricity roads and waste management into Joburg Water City Power the Johannesburg Roads Agency (JRA) and Pikitup was part of the bid to resolve the city’s financial pressures in the late 1990s and intended to promote more efficient focused delivery. But 15 years later it needs to be asked how well this system is working and what risks it poses for the city’s functionality. JRA’s poor pothole repair record is notorious and has tarnished the city’s reputation.

A further reputational liability has arisen from the ring-fencing of audit outcomes with problems at Pikitup City Power and Joburg Water for example posing an obstacle to the city securing improved audit outcomes. How well are things being co-ordinated by the city and ultimately who is in charge when things go wrong? Witness a recent contract awarded to MTN by City Power to replace light poles with cellphone masts throughout the city riding roughshod over building regulations and public participation pointing to a disconnect between city planning and executive functions and the power utility’s commercial imperatives.

It is telling that no other city has implemented the same level of devolution of powers to municipal entities and in the wake of the recent water crisis it would be hard to motivate for such a fragmentation of roles. Indeed one of the greatest challenges facing local government is ensuring co-operative governance. How much more so then if there needs to be work on ensuring co-operative governance within a city?

With mounting crises facing Johannesburg it needs to be asked whether its municipality entity tail is wagging the proverbial dog. For the African National Congress trying to shore up votes ahead of 2016 perhaps it is time for a rethink.