Water mafia sabotaging South Africa’s infrastructure and raking in millions — Report

Private operators of water tankers are capitalising on the South African government’s failure to maintain water infrastructure and taking it further by deliberately sabotaging municipal water supply to boost their businesses.

That is according to a report from Sunday Times, which comes on the back of a cholera outbreak centred in Hammanskraal on the outskirts of Pretoria.

Over the past few weeks, 21 people in the township have died while numerous others were hospitalised after getting infected with the bacterial disease, which primarily spreads through dirty water.

Hammanskraal falls under the City of Tshwane (CoT), which has seen its expenditure on water tankers in the township and informal areas rapidly surging in the past five years.

In Hammanskraal alone, Tshwane spent R85.3 million on private water tankers in the 2021/2022 financial year, around ten times more than in 2018/2019.

In the past five years, the cost amounted to about a quarter of a billion rand.

Tankers in this area are paid between R339.45 and R433.55 per hour to deliver water that is supposed to be fetched from various sources — including Rand Water and Magalies Water fire hydrants, and a borehole in Stinkwater.

Water tanker used in the City of Tshwane

Tshwane reduced water delivery days from five to three in early March due to financial constraints.

But the cholera outbreak has forced it to ramp up deliveries again.

The source of the cholera outbreak is yet to be determined, with the city claiming samples taken from its distribution points had shown no traces of cholera.

Tshwane spokesperson Selby Bokaba explained that these factors had raised questions over the potential involvement of the water tanker operators.

It has performed tests of 22 of the 44 water tankers that supply formal areas and is awaiting the results of those tests.

“We suspect, after testing water at all our water supply points and getting negative results for contamination, that it means cholera must have been introduced into the water somewhere between our water points and being delivered in communities,” Bokaba told Sunday Times.

“A tenderpreneur with a truck now parked at home, what can he do? Now the city has reacted. By Monday we had increased the number of [delivery] days from three to five.”

“Clearly, these guys will not relax until we increase the number of days to seven, and, with the death toll rising, we are likely to increase the number of days in the informal areas to seven.”

The tank operators have denied that the water they supply in their trucks could be contaminated.

However, at least three of the deceased from Hammanskraal contracted the disease after drinking water from a tanker.

According to the chair of the parliamentary committee on water and sanitation, Robert Mashego, hiring privately-owned tankers for water delivery was becoming a regular occurrence across the country.

“It’s now a business transaction for municipalities not to have clean water. It’s our assumption that people don’t want water to be cleaned because if you do that, water tankers won’t have jobs,” Mashego said.

Water and sanitation minister Senzo Mchunu has also told the Sunday Times that the Special Investigating Unit recently completed its preliminary report on the trend.

“There’s a growing problem of water tanker syndicates operating in many parts of the country,” Mchunu said.

“There are practical examples where water infrastructure has fallen victim to these trucking syndicates, and it’s part of the larger corruption that I’m talking about.”

Water resource management scientist Anthony Turton also told Sunday Times that tankers were often part of a water mafia that captured the market by destroying infrastructure.

“The tanker contracts are often awarded to local businessmen, many linked with the taxi industry,” Turton explained.

“Tankers are normally part of a water mafia that captures the market by destroying infrastructure. The tanker contracts are often awarded to local businessmen, many linked with the taxi industry.”

“Once the market is captured, it’s controlled by sabotage of infrastructure.”
Turton said it was a well-documented fact in health literature that contamination of water typically occurred in tankers or secondary storage.

Cholera also detected in Vaal River

This past week, Afriforum and Save Ngwathe also detected cholera in water samples from the Vaal River near Parys.

The sample that tested positive was taken around 10 metres downstream from a manhole leaking raw sewage into the river.

It is just one of several locations where untreated sewerage ended up in the river.

Concerningly, the water extraction point for the Vredefort area was just 1km from the area where the cholera sample was taken.

Vredefort has also reported at least one death from cholera in recent weeks. The Vaal River forms the provincial border between Gauteng and the Free State.

Manhole in Parys from which sewage is leaking and flowing into Vaal Rivier
Sewage water flowing into Vaal River near Parys

Fortunately for Gauteng residents, the point near Parys where cholera has been detected is downstream from the Vaal Dam, the province’s primary water source.

Infrastructure and governance experts have warned for years that South Africa is headed for a water crisis due to poor infrastructure maintenance, a growing population, and unpredictable rainfall due to climate change.

Large parts of the City of Tshwane recently saw their taps run dry for several days after the power supply to a large reservoir’s boosting station suffered vandalism.

Unfortunately, sourcing alternative water through a borehole or rainwater capturing system is too costly for poor households, which means they are largely left at the mercy of the government.

Now read: Backup water systems in South Africa — these are your options

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Water mafia sabotaging South Africa’s infrastructure and raking in millions — Report