More cadres and state controls will not avert water shedding

‘Under the Water Services Amendment Bill of 2023 (the Services Bill),’ notes the IRR, ‘the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) plans to appoint hundreds of new water cadres to license, monitor, and direct its existing water cadres – many of whom are clearly incompetent and unaccountable.’

‘Under the Water Services Amendment Bill of 2023 (the Services Bill),’ notes the IRR, ‘the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) plans to appoint hundreds of new water cadres to license, monitor, and direct its existing water cadres – many of whom are clearly incompetent and unaccountable.’

In December 2023 the DWS’s release of the latest Blue, Green and No Drop water reports showed that 47% of drinking water systems are in poor or critical condition; 66% of wastewater treatment plants are largely dysfunctional, and almost half the water supplied by municipalities is ‘non-revenue’ water that leaks out of pipes or is otherwise not paid for.

As delivery falters, water shedding – the equivalent of Eskom’s load-shedding but far more damaging – is also steadily accelerating. This is happening even in wealthy Johannesburg suburbs and has long been common in rural areas and former townships.

What is the government’s solution to these pressing problems?

Says IRR head of policy research Dr Anthea Jeffery: ‘Under the current Water Services Act of 1997, all “water services providers” (Joburg Water, for example) that supply water to consumers need prior “approval” from relevant “water services authorities” (the City of Joburg, for instance). Under the Services Bill, however, they will also require “operating licences” from the DWS to do the same job.’

Water and sanitation minister Senzo Mchunu is likely to need many additional deployed cadres to help him here. Within 12 months of the Bill’s enactment, he must publish a notice ‘prescribing procedures, requirements, exemptions, and conditions for licensing, the application process, and [the] granting or refusal, enforcement and revoking of operating licences’.

Formulating the initial regulations is only the beginning. The new rules must be reviewed and, if necessary, revised within five years, with further reviews scheduled at ten-year intervals thereafter. Every review will doubtless require in-depth evaluation of existing regulations, comprehensive research into alternatives (backed perhaps by overseas investigation) and many revisions of new rules proposed.

‘In the interim’, says Jeffery, ‘more cadres will be needed to enforce the initial rules by ensuring that all water services providers obtain their operating licences within 12 months. The licensing process will not be simple, for cadres will have to assess whether applicants are fully compliant with “institutional and governance arrangements”, demonstrate the necessary “financial sustainability and managerial capability”, and have the “technical competence to provide water services”’.

What happens if fully licensed – but, in practice often still dysfunctional – water services providers fall down on the job by failing to improve drinking water, fix leaking valves, or stop untreated sewage spilling out?

Adds Jeffery: ‘The Services Bill has a solution for this too, for the minister – and the additional cadres he will presumably need – will then issue “directives” detailing “the nature and extent” of any failure, along with its “effect and impact on consumers or [water] works”, and the reasonable period in which it must be rectified.

‘If rectification does not follow, the minister will be empowered to take over all functions not being properly fulfilled. Cadre deployment could expand further as the minister takes charge of “operations and maintenance, infrastructure maintenance, refurbishment and expansion, billing and revenue management, procurement and supply chain management, human resource management, and any other functions…set out in [his] directive”.’

According to the DWS, ministerial intervention will make all the difference – as the only remedy at present is to place a recalcitrant municipality under provincial administration under section 139 of the Constitution, which is a complex process.

Yet directives to rectify environmental pollution can already be issued under the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) of 1998. The problem here, as the DWS acknowledges, is that 71 of the 88 notices and directives issued to municipalities under NEMA in the 2022 financial year have yet to elicit a response...

The Services Bill ignores the underlying reasons for the growing malaise in the water sector. It disregards a crippling loss of engineering and other skills to cadre deployment and racial employment targets. It overlooks pervasive fraud and inflated pricing in many preferential tenders.

It discounts a major funding problem too. A 2019 Master Plan for water and sanitation seeks R90bn a year for ten years to cover maintenance backlogs and other needs, but annual budget allocations fall far short of this. In addition, many water services institutions under-spend their budgets or fritter much of their money away.

Comments Jeffery: ‘The Services Bill is a transparent attempt to expand the ruling party’s patronage machine in the run-up to a cliff-hanger general election. The Bill will make existing problems considerably worse by wasting scarce revenue on more cadres, while further entrenching incompetence, corruption – and the flawed belief that ever greater state control is the optimum antidote to the state’s own delivery failures.’

In its submission on the Services Bill, the IRR recommends that this draft law be scrapped.

Media contact: Anthea Jeffery, IRR Head of Policy Research Tel: +27848273872; Email:

Media enquiries: Michael Morris, Head of Media Tel: +2766-302-1968 Email:

Sinalo Thuku, Media Liaison Assistant Tel: +2773-932-8506 Email: