The government owes municipalities a phenomenal R5.4 billion for unpaid water services, while ordinary South Africans and the private sector owe nearly R110bn.
This was revealed by Thabo Manyoni, the chairman of the SA Local Government Association (Salga), who said the total R115 billion figure included interest.
“We have to keep in mind the economy is rapidly declining, and municipalities have people who are unemployed,” he said.
Manyoni was speaking on Friday at the launch of Salga’s annual report on water services in South Africa, as part of its Municipal Benchmarking Initiative.
The report found a “year-on-year improvement” in water quality, human resources and skills development, service delivery and backlogs, operations and maintenance and financial management.
But consumer behaviour and ageing infrastructure had led to a decline in water conservation demand management, it found.
Water service provision in South Africa was the responsibility of municipal water service authorities, but if the water was of poor quality, it would contribute to the creation of unhealthy and unsafe living environments, found the report.
“Poor services can therefore make it difficult to attract business or industry to an area and will limit job opportunities for residents. Municipalities face significant challenges as they strive to increase the quality and manage the costs of services to their customers.”
The challenges included droughts and floods, financial constraints, a rapidly ageing infrastructure, capacity and skills shortages, and increased customer demands for improved service.
“Service delivery protests have become a regular feature of South African life.
“Protest and unrest is bad for the local economy, leading to perceptions of instability.”
The report found that 46% of water service authorities had a very high vulnerability index, which is a good indicator of the readiness of a municipality to perform.
Dhesigen Naidoo, the chief executive of the Water Research Commission, told the Saturday Star that the failure of municipal water infrastructure weakened the response to the ongoing drought.
“It’s about the ability to deal with extremes such as droughts and floods… When you get the basics right, built into that is your ability to deal with extreme events.
“We’re already seeing more intense rainfall in some parts of the country and we will see more heatwave and drought episodes. We need to click into this as soon as possible (at a municipal level).”
Andries Nel, the deputy minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, said: “We need well-functioning municipalities (for the) well-functioning provision of water and sanitation.”
Manyoni added: “We’re urging our municipalities to concentrate on maintenance, maintenance, maintenance – and the use of technology, to make sure that they provide clean, safe water to their citizens.”