'No water hike but funding needed'

Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica has ruled out any increase in water tariffs in the near future but indicated that her department is massively under-funded.

Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica has ruled out any increase in water tariffs in the near future but indicated that her department is massively under-funded.

"I want to allay South Africans' fear," the minister said at a media briefing yesterday in Parliament. "There is no possibility of a hike in the near future. It's not in the pipeline."

Sonjica said any water tariff increase would have to go through an "extensive" consultation process before it could be enforced.

"We are a participatory democracy. Any matter related to a hike of a water tariff has to go through an extensive consultation process ... with all of the water users of South Africa."

However, her department was looking at tariff policy.

"(This) is a very fragmented policy. So we are changing the policy. Even this will go under extensive scrutiny before we reach consensus, and the last place for that policy will be the cabinet. "So for a tariff hike is not on the cards."

But responding to a question on the size of her department's budget allocation over the next three years - about R27billion between 2010-11 and 2012-13- Sonjica said she was hoping this would increase.

"We are making the point that water is a catalyst to all problems related to poverty (and) development.

"We are making sure that message is appreciated and we hope that will translate into a bigger budget."

Her department is facing huge challenges and costs associated with the replacement of ageing water and sanitation infrastructure, a critical skills shortage, especially in rural areas, and a rising demand for water from industrial projects.

Asked just how big a budget the department would need over the next three years to ideally cope with these challenges, Sonjica replied: "More than R100billion."

Speaking at the briefing, water affairs deputy director-general Cornelius Ruiters confirmed that illegal abstraction of water by farmers was on the rise.

"Illegal water use is one of the challenges of South Africa, particularly in the upper Vaal (River) ... It is calculated to be about 250million cubic metres of water (a year) out of the Vaal system alone.

"It's having a direct downstream effect on other water users," Ruiters said, adding that the problem was a main focus area of the department.

It was a problem not just confined to the Vaal system.

"It's also in the Mokolo system (in Limpopo), we have it in the Berg River in the Western Cape, and also, to an extent, in the Olifants River catchment in Mpumalanga."

The briefing also heard that the amount of money South Africa's cash-strapped rural municipalities now owe water boards - which supply them with bulk water - has apparently risen sharply from R1,6 billion to R1,26billion. - Sapa

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