On the Money: Rhodes gets street cred
Date Released: Tue, 3 September 2013 07:59 +0200
Dramatic pictures of our professors in full academic regalia protesting about recent water outages propelled Grahamstown into the national news for the wrong reasons.
Although they seem to have had some effect. We all have water again, for now anyway. Will Rhodes University academics have to take to the streets again to protest about something as mundane as the inability of the municipality to supply a constant supply of drinkable water?
The university has pulled every available lever, including bringing the matter to the attention of the authorities at other levels of government. There is not much more it can do, except as threatened, shut the university down and send the students home when there is a prolonged water outage.
It may never come to that, but the water outages have highlighted particular problems with Grahamstown’s water supply. As a DA document outlined recently, many university residences and many other parts the city - including the Monument, prison, army base, and Rhodes post-grad village - lie above the base of the existing reservoir, and so only get water when the reservoir level rises above their height.
The DA suggests building a new reservoir.
The DA has several other suggestions, all of which seem practical. Technical solutions aside, what interests and concerns me is whether citizens in other small South African municipalities will ever get a reliable, clean and safe supply of water and consistent electricity supply without a university to loudly protest.
Behind our recurring water outages lies a much bigger, national problem. It extends to many if not most municipalities, and is at its core as much political as it is financial. It is the reason that problems with water and electricity in our towns never seem to be finally fixed. Municipalities generally, according to Sasha Peters of the Financial and Fiscal Commission (FFC - the research body that advises on flows of money between the different levels of government) are simply not spending enough on maintenance and renewal.
Peters points out, in an FFC policy brief, that well-maintained water pumps, pipes, electricity stations and power lines are "central to economic production and attracting businesses to particular localities, with the spin-offs of more jobs and a larger municipal tax base". Poorly-maintained infrastructure can undermine services and increase backlogs.
Care of existing assets is vital.
She notes that in times of pressure on the budget, infrastructure maintenance and renewal is a soft target, because "it is not immediately visible and hence politically less sensitive".
The FFC estimates that during 2011-2012, municipalities under-budgeted around R5 billion and underspent by around R9b on maintenance. Backlogs in municipal infrastructure renewals are as bad if not worse, according to Peters. The FFC estimates the size of the water and sanitation backlog to be between R19b and R39b, and the electricity backlog between R25b and R41b.
According to the FFC, “a capital renewals programme” is needed to arrive at “tolerable infrastructure standards”. “This would require municipalities to spend annually at least an additional R4b per sector (water and sanitation, and electricity), whereas current levels of investment in capital renewals are between R600 and R800 million per year.
“Based on current investment levels, in five years’ time the condition of water and sanitation, and electricity infrastructure will deteriorate from poor to very poor, the capital renewals backlog will deepen and a much greater capital renewals programme will be needed to restore acceptable standards.”
How that will happen when, as is widely acknowledged, municipalities are struggling with a host of what are loosely called “governance” and “administrative” issues, I don’t know. Looking at the figures for capital spending in Makana itself does raise an eyebrow.
According to figures provided by the National Treasury, for the year ending March 2013, in other words the first three quarters of the municipal year, Makana had spent almost 30 times as much as had originally been budgeted on sport and recreation, or almost R12m. On water, however, it had spent of its capital budget under 15%, and on electricity around 12%.
Municipalities are also struggling to account for what they do, and to comply with the demands for financial reporting by the Treasury.
It won’t make Makana residents feel any better to know that not a single municipality in the Eastern Cape received a “clean” audit in the 2011-2012 year, as in the previous financial year. Not that many municipalities received clean audits countrywide. This suggests there is something wrong with the system, and that the pressure applied by national government won’t solve the problem.
Only pressure from the local citizenry will make any difference, but the voices of the ordinary people who are hurt as much as the university is by the municipality’s difficulty in supplying water and electricity, among other things, are muted.
By: Reg Rumney
Article Source: Grocotts Mail