Heads roll at water affairs

It was a dark day for Water affairs.

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On 19 October, acting director general (DG) Nobubele Ngele and chief financial officer (CFO) Onesmus Ayaya briefed the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on the financial statements contained in the department’s annual report. The briefing soon became a confessional, with both Ngele and Ayaya admitting that the department’s financial affairs were in disarray – especially for the Water Trading Entity (WTE), the department’s mechanism for billing water users and receiving payments.

The WTE received its second qualified report in five years from the auditor general. Ngele admitted that the department “doesn’t have a clear water-use database” and that “there are people extracting water, which we were unable to trace.” These people were either being billed incorrectly or not being billed at all. The department lacks the capacity to manage its accounts, she said.

The departmental representatives were duly savaged by the portfolio committee, with chairperson Makhotso Magdalene Sotyu calling on Water and Environmental Affairs minister Buyelwa Sonjica to account for the mess. “This portfolio is the worst I’ve chaired in my life,” said Sotyu.

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DA shadow minister for water affairs Gareth Morgan said, “Water users have every reason to feel aggrieved if they face significant tariff increases in the future, as the WTE’s billing is in many cases unreliable and there’s evidence that not all water users are paying the correct fees.”

The committee refused to adopt the department’s annual report – the first time since 1994 that an oversight committee has rejected a department’s performance report. Consequences followed swiftly. On 31 October, President Jacob Zuma replaced Sonjica with social development minister Edna Molewa.

Two days later Ngele and Ayaya were suspended.In May, the office of the auditor general completed an investigation in which certain officials, including Ngele and Ayaya, were implicated in several breaches of procurement procedures, explained departmental spokesperson Mava Scott.

Scott said that the department thought it “prudent to put them on precautionary suspension pending due process in this regard.” But former water affairs official Carin Bosman said the problems in the water department were less the fault of individuals than of the way the WTE is structured.

“The regional offices of the department run entirely on the WTE. How it works is they have to collect money from people who use water, and that money becomes a projected income the department has to run its business on,” she explained.

“Put another way, if a customer has used water and it was recorded, then this is simultaneously recorded as revenue, before the cash is actually collected. “Essentially this changes people who are engineers and scientists into debt collectors.“The officials who reported to parliament were quite honest when they said, ‘Listen, we can’t do this’.

Ayaya is the second person from the finance department who has been suspended because of problems with the WTE.”Bosman suggested that the responsibility of collecting money should be handed to a competent auditing company.

“At the moment, the guys in the regional office are spending all their time collecting money, and they simply don’t get a chance to go and see if mines are operating with a water licence, or to do any real water management work,” she said.According to Morgan, the new minister faces some major challenges.
The first will be getting to grips with the water department’s human-resource issues, he added.
“At the moment Molewa has a suspended DG, a suspended acting DG, a suspended CFO and the WTE is in a mess.

“But what worries me more is that she has no experience at all with water governance, and yet this is what she needs to focus on. “The previous minister, by her own admission, spent far too much time on climate negotiations and neglected water government,” he said.