By Gareth Morgan, DA MP
South Africa's water infrastructure problems are second only to Eskom's infrastructure problems. The backlog in terms of maintenance of existing water infrastructure and the building of new infrastructure is partly a result of various problems facing the Water Boards - most notably, as we have now established, the fact that more than R1-billion is owed to Water Boards by municipalities.
Water Boards are responsible for pulling together all the water resources within a particular area and ensuring that water is purified and delivered to where it is needed. Their income is almost exclusively from the sale of water to municipalities.
According to a reply to a DA parliamentary question in the National Assembly, the money owed by municipalities to Water Boards as at 31 July 2009 was R1.1 billion. This comprised R630 290 676 of current debt and arrears of R525 632 866. Over a billion Rand owed to water boards is extraordinarily high and must surely hamper the ability of many Water Boards to operate effectively and to make the required infrastructure investments.
Water Boards in general find themselves in difficult situations because on the one hand many municipalities struggle to pay and on the other hand the Minister of Water Affairs sets the tariffs that Boards can charge municipalities.
South Africa has 14 Water Boards, the majority of which are managed fairly well and have received clean audit reports from the Auditor-General in recent years. But many face financial strain. The Namakwa and Bothshelo Water Boards for example both made significant losses in the 2007-2008 financial year.
To ensure that problems do not escalate further the Minister must place significant attention on making all the Water Boards sustainable. While there may be an argument in one or two cases to close a particular water board or to merge some water boards, the Minister must first and foremost address the lack of payment of funds to Water Boards by municipalities, as well as find means to tackle infrastructure problems and skills shortages.
The Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs must ensure that the National Treasury, which has a mandate to mediate between Water Boards and municipalities in terms of section 44 of the Municipal Finance Management Act, pressurises municipalities to pay their outstanding debts. Indeed there should be punitive measures taken against municipalities that are tardy in paying.
The Minister must make a point of listening to the concerns of Water Boards in 2010. One of the most common criticisms by CEOs of Water Boards that appeared before the portfolio committee in 2009 was that it was exceptionally difficult to engage with the Department of Water Affairs or to get it to respond to issues of concern. Considering the water stresses that South Africa faces, the proper function of Water Boards needs urgent addressing this year.