Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda on Joburg’s water woes

‘The current situation cannot entirely be interpreted as a permanent solution. What the City of Johannesburg needs is to embark on a wide-scale audit of our 12 500 pipelines,’ says the city’s first citizen.

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Interview starts at the 1:23 mark. 

JEREMY MAGGS: Overnight, some parts of Johannesburg still without water due to work on a burst pipe. The pipe affects suburbs that are recovering after weeks of water outages that occurred due to power trips at the Eikenhof pump station. So what’s the bigger picture here and is the situation under control?

On our last programme, we asked via our online poll if there was a crisis or not. Around 70% of residents who participated said yes, a sizable number saying the issue is one of lack of engineering expertise. A little earlier, I was in conversation with the city’s mayor, Kabelo Gwamanda, who is a lot more bullish than most of his ratepayers.

KABELO GWAMANDA: We have been able to successfully restore water, we’re just finalising an issue with a burst pipe in the Linden area. But 99% of the challenge has been fixed. However, the current situation cannot entirely be interpreted as a permanent solution. What the City of Johannesburg needs is to embark on a wide-scale audit of our 12 500 pipelines, so that we can be able to replace what needs to be replaced and to refurbish what needs to be refurbished. So it’s an ongoing process.

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JEREMY MAGGS: Mayor Gwamanda, when do you think that audit will take place then and how complicated is it?

KABELO GWAMANDA: It does require a scientific approach. So what has happened in the past is that Johannesburg Water has undertaken an audit as an entity. However, due to the wide variety of contributing factors towards the water situations, which includes but not limited to our City Power infrastructure, the issue has then been escalated to the office of the COO of the co-administration under his special projects unit so that they can correlate the audit that has been conducted by Johannesburg Water with the one that they are currently conducting.

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We will in the next council sitting, table a comprehensive report on the status of the infrastructure in the City of Johannesburg, especially relating to our water infrastructure, and we’ll also include in that initiatives that we have done successfully in the immediate, the plans that we have for midterm and an overall 10-year plan on how we are going to then expand our infrastructure and ensure that the residents in the City of Johannesburg do not face this situation again.

JEREMY MAGGS: The trouble, of course, is this is going to be very expensive. Does the city have the money to do that?

KABELO GWAMANDA: So over the past couple of weeks, I have been engaging with other spheres of government, but Johannesburg Water has also been engaged in an engagement with National Treasury so that we can establish a PPP (public-private partnership) model that does not take the lengthy process in which it ordinarily does. National Treasury is going to assist in us reducing the timeframes.

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The only aspect that was outstanding at the time was the commercial aspect of this particular business model that we need to implement, especially for water treatment plants that are required for the City of Johannesburg to have an alternative water supply and not rely entirely on Rand Water for the supply of water in the City of Johannesburg.

JEREMY MAGGS: But the situation right now is that you don’t have that commitment yet from Treasury, do you?

KABELO GWAMANDA: Not yet because local government is highly regulated and hence, we need to get that approval, specifically from National Treasury, although they only comment at times, and they do not want to define a business model on behalf of a municipality. They will make comments here and there, but ultimately, they would want you to take a decision and then account for it at the end of the day.

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JEREMY MAGGS: I want to push you a little bit further on the numbers and about the ability to spend the money that you have. The city’s current water and sanitation infrastructure backlog, you will be aware, is estimated to be something in the region of R25 billion to R27 billion. Yet Mayor Gwamanda, you’re only spending R1 billion annually on water and sanitation. Why is there this huge disconnect?

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KABELO GWAMANDA: So, as you would know, the business model at municipalities, it includes revenue generated from water sales, revenue generated from electricity sales, and revenue generated from rates and taxes. So a percentage which is required by legislation for us to allocate to infrastructure has not been done in the past couple of years. Hence, you would find that Johannesburg Water and City Power are way below the margins. But in this particular financial year, we are going to start readdressing that particular aspect so that we can begin to direct our investment as a city first towards our infrastructure.

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I think at the time, and I’m not speaking on behalf of previous administrations, I think they were inundated with expanding infrastructure and access to water and electricity over and above the infrastructure maintenance of which it’s mandatory for us to do.

So I think the bulk of our budget was directed to new infrastructure, especially in disadvantaged communities or black and previously disadvantaged communities that needed to have the same access.

So this administration, based on what has been done already, because the expansion in fact of the city is primarily as a result of property developers and they have the financial means for them to be able to pay for bulk infrastructure. So for us as a city, it is of paramount importance that we, like you had alluded to in your latter statement, begin to invest according to legislative requirements.

JEREMY MAGGS: Mayor, I’m curious to know why you or your office said the water situation in Johannesburg wasn’t a crisis. You have to concede that for many residents, hundreds of thousands of people, it was, and in many respects remains a crisis.

KABELO GWAMANDA: The issue here is access to water and the disruption that had occurred. As a city, we understand that it can’t be tolerated that communities would go on without water for several days at a time. Although we understood what the contributing factors were and we had a plan in place that had been initiated to remedy the situation, the challenge in the main was the delay in the restoration of water.

Being without water is a problem. That is a challenge, in fact, that we cannot water down, we cannot dismiss, and we cannot try to defend the city against.

But for us to go to the extreme extent of saying it’s an overall crisis because the interpretation of a crisis and us working on a solution to remedy, we in our view feel that it is not synonymous.

JEREMY MAGGS: All right, I’m not going to argue the semantics of the word crisis with you, but you will concede then that you had a plan, and the plan didn’t work or didn’t work optimally.

KABELO GWAMANDA: If you remember that on 3 March and on 4 March, we experienced these challenges and although City Power did attend to the situation, the weather conditions at the time were of an extreme nature and as such, contributed towards another disruption that occurred.

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We do acknowledge that whenever infrastructure fails, government needs to account in that regard. But by virtue of us having knowledge, a completeness of the challenge and how we are working on remedying that challenge is the message that we wanted to deliver to the residents as opposed to us taking a view that we are being dismissive. It was, in fact, a way for us to instil a sense of confidence enough to understand that the city is working in the remedial actions required for the water to be restored.

JEREMY MAGGS: I’m going to leave it there. Mayor Gwamanda, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

William Murphy

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