Thursday, 10 January 2019

Prince Alberts Water

by Colin Bower

Concerning water, and other issues. Or why the Prince Albert (PA) Municipality does not secure my goodwill in respect of its ever more frantic requests to “save” water.

I know we are in a dire drought (although the more relevant point is the extent to which that drought affects the area of the town of PA itself), and I am against profligacy of any kind, and certainly in respect of water.

Why then am I half-hearted in my willingness to conform to the Municipality’s strictures on water usage (90 litres pp per day) ? To answer that I have to go back to two fundamental points that some may find all too academic or theoretical in the face of what they see as a crisis. Too bad. We still have to go back to those fundamentals. For a period of well over 2000 years water rights in the western world have been governed by common law riparian rights which trace their origin to Justinian and for all I know earlier. A riparian right is (or was in South Africa) a property right and respect for property rights is a cornerstone of freedom. In the USA riparian rights are protected from Government appropriation by the Constitution). Until 1998, water in South Africa was regulated by riparian common law also. Then the government passed the Water Act, which appropriated the ownership of all water in SA to the government, placed it under statutory law and became the monopoly supplier of water in our country. Therefore, none of us have an inalienable right to our leiwater, irrespective of our property title deeds, and no farmer has an inalienable right to the water under his or her land. This at a stroke destroyed the market in water or the possibility of a market in water ever emerging. But a market is the sole and exclusive means for establishing an agreed and objective cost of a product. The concept of the establishment of price by means of supply and demand is a concept that goes back to Aristotle (somewhat further back than that bĂȘte noire of the social justice warriors, Adam Smith).

Without a means of determining a true price for water we are denied the means of managing it effectively. We cannot establish any economic model that will objectively determine the respective ratios between capital costs, distribution costs, operational costs, and price. There is a further factor that serves to hinder the emergence of a real price for water, and to obfuscate our understanding of just what water is deemed to be (my view: simply a commodity): The Constitution makes provision of water as a right. Social justice warriors will applaud this. I don’t. Water comes at a cost, but if the government is both morally bankrupt and financially bankrupt, how does a right that comes at a cost get to be enforced? It can’t be. It is a right on paper only. But the effect of this provision of the Constitution coupled with the nationalisation of water serves to take water completely out of the realm of the law of supply and demand, and it turns water supply from a simply economic transaction into a quasi-spiritual benefit (“water is life … water is a right”). Again, this seems to have a wonderful moral resonance, but in actuality it frees water suppliers such as PAM from any practical, purposeful and business-centred obligation to account for the water it supplies. It has no idea what the water it procures and supplies costs, and it has no idea what to charge for it. For instance, what is the cost of water loss through faulty piping systems, and what is the cost of repairing the pipes relatives to the cost of the losses? Ally to this systemic failure some level of operational incompetence and you have the disaster which we currently experience.

If our problems are systemic at the national level, as I allege, then we will never solve them at the local level – and this is the problem we face. But we can mitigate the effect of such a systemic failure. We can best do so by privatising the supply of water in our town, as a number of other municipalities in SA have already done with success. (iLembe., pop; 34 000; Mbombele; pop; 35 000), and others). In a 2014 article the privatisation of water supply was recommended by the Mail & Guardian.

But it is too much to hope for that this course will be followed here. Our next best solution is to commercialise the supply of water. The water supply can remain under the jurisdiction of the PAM but sub-contracted out to a for-profit specialising water engineering company (they exist in South Africa) , an arrangement that will enforce the development and implementation of a proper and a sound economic model, that will enforce operational efficiencies, and that will place the sub-contractor under penalty for failure. This will also mean that we get to have a true cost of our water, and – as under all market conditions – the scarcer the resource, the costlier it will become. If this means – as seems likely – that the cost of water may be prohibitively high for the poor, the problem can be addressed by means of a subsidy or, say, a voucher system. At least under these circumstances we will know exactly what we are dealing with in respect of supply and demand, cost and price. I am confident that a private for -profit sub-contractor will find means of adequately sourcing water for all the needs of the town. And it is worth remembering that at the landmark Water Indaba held in our town some 10 years ago Rick Murray told us that the problem with water management in PA was unrealistically cheap water.

If even commercialisation represents medicine too strong for social justice warriors, shouldn’t we at least have in place in the PAM a well-qualified, professional, water engineer? Wouldn’t many of us even be prepared to pay a premium on our rates for the costs of such a person? The post of the MM costs taxpayers well over R1-million a year – couldn’t we dispense with the post of an MM in favour of a qualified water engineer, given the fact that water supply is the sine qua non of the viability of our town?

I have previously attempted to explain my view that party political councillor candidature is unnecessary and divisive in a town such as ours, and that we would be better off with a council of independents. But since we do have a party-political council, isn’t it the least we can expect to get well thought our water supply policy statements from the various parties competing for council positions (to say nothing of policy positions regarding re-cycling, solid waste management and the like)? Are all the political parties in Council at one regarding the current water situation, and at one regarding the water restrictions? If so, why are they at one? I would feel re-assured if any of the political parties had raised concerns about the water management performance of the Municipality (perhaps they have). At the same time, I would like to be re-assured that the restrictions have been duly authorised, and I would like to know whether the restrictions are an advisory or a legal demand.

My sense is that the PAM is both unqualified to manage water supply and operationally incompetent to do so. And so, the moment its water supply system begins to fail, it drops the problem in the laps of the residents with the instruction: “You only have 90 litres a day”. But I don’t want the problem dropped in my lap, I want it solved at source, and it is for such a solution that I pay swingeing taxes of all kinds. Again, let me say: I know there are consequences of a drought … I am committed to water conservancy … and I know I live in Africa, and I am happy to do so. But I expect to live in conformity with first world living standards, as – in effect – all the people addressed by this communication are. Our town is a first world destination, and everyone in it is to a lesser or a greater degree dependent on our visitors, but perhaps the poor community more than most.

In the absence of any reasonably scientific data supporting the 90-litre pp per day restriction I regard it as arbitrary and irrational – irrational for many reasons, but here are a few. Many residents grow vegetables and fruit. This is not a middle-class indulgence. Domestic crops reduce dependency on food brought into the town by means of food miles. How do we equate the value of the water thus used and the environmental impact of imported products? Many people have businesses that are dependent on water yet produce positive benefits for the town. Many others offer accommodation, but here we are faced with a conundrum: why should the needs of visitors trump the needs of the inhabitants? Swimming pools are seen by some as an indulgence, but I fully support the existence of the municipal pool and the pleasure and health it brings to countless residents of the North End of town, but why should private pools – also the source of pleasure and health to many people – be regarded differently?

I dislike being admonished either formally or informally as if I were a naughty boy. Instead of claiming that the residents use too much water, why not say instead that the Municipality supplies too little water and put the blame for water shortage where it belongs. I use as little water as I deem to be reasonable, but I do not necessarily restrict my usage to PAM guidelines, and will not do so until I am assured of professional water management. Until then my own sense of discretion will be my guideline.

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