South Africa

South African water mafia causing chaos

A water tanker mafia is exploiting South Africa’s water crisis, where dilapidated infrastructure results in 50% of the water from bulk water suppliers never reaching the end consumer.

This was revealed by water scientist Professor Anthony Turton, who told eNCA that water shortages in parts of the country are due to institutional failure and not a lack of water. 

“The reality is that our dams are pretty much the fullest they have been for a long period of time,” Turton said. 

“If we manage our water wisely, we certainly have enough to grow our economy and population. The problem is that we are not managing it wisely,” Turton said. 

An estimated 50% of the water from bulk water suppliers in South Africa does not reach the end consumer due to leakages, theft, and failing infrastructure. “It is not a water scarcity issue. It is an institutional failure issue,” Turton said. 

“Ultimately, it comes down to infrastructure, long-term planning and putting in place mitigating factors that will protect us in the future from climate change.”

Institutional failure, particularly at the level of municipalities, has resulted in ‘water-shifting’ in some areas. Water shifting is to the water sector, as load-shedding is to the energy sector.

This crisis of local governance has been fully exploited by a so-called “tanker mafia”, which deliberately sabotages infrastructure to win and prolong contracts to supply water tankers to the affected areas. 

Turton pointed specifically to KwaZulu Natal as an example of where this type of mafia is thriving. 

“There is a thriving tanker mafia in KZN that actively sabotages the water infrastructure. They do this to continue and prolong their contracts with the municipalities to provide water tankers across communities that need water,” Turton said.

He added that these tanker suppliers do not source their water from safe, potable sources. Instead, they take unsafe water from dams or rivers as they are paid per tanker. 

“These elements thrive on chaos, and they need to be investigated with urgency.” 

He noted that this is the same for sewage infrastructure in the country, where there is a growing trend of mafias destroying sewage works to benefit from sewage pump rentals.

Turton has previously warned of potential social unrest from declining water supply in South Africa. 

“It is in the great interest of the majority of society to resolve this issue. If we do not get this right, there will be an external correction through legal intervention in the courts or a suspension of the Constitution through some or other kind of popular uprising and extrajudicial means.”

To prevent this in the short term, the government has implemented what it has called ‘water shifting’ to avoid the entire collapse of some local water systems. 

“Water shifting is to the water sector as load-shedding is to the energy sector,” Turton said. “This essentially prevents a local angry mob from taking to the streets and protesting. That is really all it does. It keeps some people happy for some of the time.”


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