ALEC HOGG: In this excerpt we speak with Helgard Muller, who is the chief director of the Department of Water Affairs.
Your department has come under quite a lot of public scrutiny recently, not least because it appears as though the 850 municipal sewerage plants are creaking, if not under strain. Perhaps you could give us an indication from your side, whether the reports have been exaggerated or whether we really have a problem. …
HELGARD MULLER: There are deep concerns. I think there are deep concerns around many municipalities because, also understand, this phase in the development of our country – come ‘94, a lot of money was put into providing new houses and getting people access to services, connecting new houses and other houses without services to both the water networks and the sewerage networks without corresponding upgrading or enlargement of both waterworks and sewage-treatment works. And now we are faced with these facilities being either too small or being run inefficiently. And that is a major focus area for us as a country to go forward in future.
ALEC HOGG: Is it realistic for a country like South Africa to be able to maintain the standards where you can open a tap anywhere in the country and be comfortable that the drinking water you have is safe?
HELGARD MULLER: We believe it’s a requirement because many poor people can’t afford bottled water. So we certainly see it’s indeed a must. We can’t compromise on drinking water quality. Some people say we’ll be dropping our standards – I can just say that myself and a colleague of mine have been recently invited to a meeting of the World Health Organisation, a meeting of drinking water quality regulators, and they believe what we are doing is for a developing country extremely good and extremely right there amongst world-class standards.
ALEC HOGG: But the point that you made just a moment ago about the infrastructure creaking, about a lot of new houses coming on board since 1994, lots of new demands on the system – does that not require an urgent investment in capital, recapitalising our whole municipal sewerage plants, systems?
HELGARD MULLER: Alec, you are quite correct. There is indeed a major challenge there, and major capital need. It’s also sometimes not only capital, it’s also how to keep systems going. It’s about both the capital investment as well as the ongoing operations of such systems.
ALEC HOGG: So it’s a question of getting the municipalities to first of all run them efficiently and it requires them to upgrade?
HELGARD MULLER: Ja. There are talks under way in government departments on ways to do it. There are other options as well, and I think the private sector and water boards have a great role to play there – where the municipality clearly hasn’t got the capacity – involving another institution or a private company to do the operation maintenance on their behalf.
ALEC HOGG: So if you were to sum it all up, there has been increasing attention on water around the world, as well as in South Africa as a country that is not as well endowed with water as one might have hoped. Are we facing a crisis, or are we facing a situation where it is difficult but it can be overcome?
HELGARD MULLER: Definitely the latter one, Alec. We will always face challenges because we are a water-scarce country. We’ve got enough water – we must just manage it very carefully. It will always be a high demand on all of us, both to manage and use it effectively to avert a crisis.
ALEC HOGG: We were into the clip a little bit early, but I am sure you have picked up it was all to do with the water situation in South Africa, and I was talking with the chief director of the Department of Water Affairs, Helgard Muller. The full discussion – and it really is something that we should be paying a lot more attention to – is on Moneyweb. You can listen to the full podcast of about 12 minutes or read the transcript.