Follow the money

The city of Gqeberha in South Africa is an example of how water is increasingly becoming a commodified resource, benefiting the powerful and depriving everyone else.

Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

“Let me say this,” as Thomas Merton once wrote, “before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money.” The water system in Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality (NMBM) in the Eastern Cape of South Africa is in crisis, but this crisis is evolving to increasingly burden the working class in favor of wealth and industry. This happens in two ways: through water bills and through a reduction in household consumption. The municipality reports that its industrial and commercial sector consumes 35% of the municipality’s water. At present, it is not clear what discrepancy exists between wealthy suburban households and working-class townships, but research on Cape Town’s water system indicates the city’s wealthiest were responsible for more than half of all domestic consumption.

In Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, residents in some black working-class townships are now saying they are subject to capped meters that throttle consumption beyond 50 liters per household per day. We must consider that as many as five people are living in these township households where new meters have been installed. Meanwhile, workers in the industrial sector are mostly township residents, albeit precariously employed, whose labor goes into productive processes that are also fueled by municipal water to produce commodities, often for export. These same township residents who work for a discount wage then return home to restrictions on how much water they can consume.

At issue are the municipality’s priorities and how it assesses privilege to water consumption. It is fundamentally about whether water should be for those who can pay or if it should be universally available and free. South Africa’s National Water Act stipulates basic ecological and human reserves of water must be provided before allocation to other sectors. This is neither regulated, implemented, nor enforced. We must know where the water is going if we are going to determine such allocations.

There is no transparency in the municipality’s water system. The municipality routinely publishes daily water consumption statistics, but this does not indicate where the consumption is coming from. At the bottom of their daily consumption graphic, it states “Let’s reduce our consumption and SAVE WATER NOW!” The implication of this message is that residents are individually responsible for fixing the water system by “reducing demand.” We cannot talk about reducing demand without understanding where consumption is coming from across the municipality. This information should be public and transparent and should pertain not only to where the supply is coming from, but also who is consuming, and how much.

In a recent response to an article about industrial consumption, the NMBM Business Chamber provided a detailed report of examples from industrial businesses’ efforts to save water. While it is laudable, and probably necessary, for industrial businesses to become increasingly efficient water consumers, the information provided still does not explain how much water these businesses consume. It also does not explain how much industry is paying for water or their municipal debts.

Corporate actors must not begin to think they are indispensable, given what they take home in profits from the labor of their underpaid workers, and the measly 27% taxes they pay. A far cry from the 40% they used to pay in the 1940s. Since those days, the loosening of exchange controls has made it even easier for capital flight, which makes it harder to detect the actual amount these big corporations are contributing to tax through their corporate plunder. Municipalities that are underfunded due to such tax policies increasingly put themselves under the influence of corporate investment, and hence, prioritize their services.

This is a broader problem in the continent. According to the Tax Justice Network, African resource-rich countries are particularly exposed to capital flight through embezzlement of export proceeds and export misinvoicing. Even worse, resource-rich countries lose large amounts of tax revenue through manipulation of transfer pricing by multinational corporations that take advantage of tax havens. Oil-rich African countries account for more than 55% of total capital flight from the continent.

Volkswagen South Africa is the only business whose water consumption (1 mega liter per day) is reported by the NMBM Business Chamber in its response. Putting aside that this information is self-reported, Volkswagen is a corporation that itemizes its water consumption in its sustainability reports, which explains why this business was examined as a case for the industrial sector in Nelson Mandela Bay Metro. We can give Volkswagen credit for this corporate practice, but we must also remember that Volkswagen Kariega operated unabated for the entirety of last year while Chris Hani settlement in Kwa-Nobuhle, less than 10km away, was without water for seven months. Again, where do the priorities lie when it comes to service delivery?

If we look at more recent reporting in Volkswagen Group’s 2022 Sustainability Report, it lists its freshwater consumption at 3.75 m3 per vehicle, 3,750 liters for passenger and light commercial vehicles. The Independent Auditor’s Limited Assurance Report in the appendices states Volkswagen Group South Africa in Kariega (a town within the NMBM) is one of the sites included in an “…evaluation of the implementation of group management requirements, processes, and specifications regarding data capture.” This information does not explain where exactly Volkswagen gets its water from. The business chamber has now explained how much municipal water VW Kariega consumes, but the fact remains that there is no onus on these corporations to divulge their water consumption.

Some corporations choose to list their water consumption as a total for their global operations rather than local consumption. Isuzu writes in its 2022 Sustainability Report:

Isuzu uses a large amount of water in vehicle manufacturing, plant maintenance, wastewater treatment, and other processes. To conserve our limited water resources, Isuzu promotes the reuse of water used in business processes and the use of treated wastewater and reduces the amount of water used.

It is difficult to ascertain from this report how much water is consumed in the productive process or according to which processing facility. The data in such sustainability reports is often selective and not uniformly representative of all corporate facilities.

The NMBM’s water reporting data is also subject to scrutiny. The municipality participates in the national Green Drop and Blue Drop reports. In these reports, municipalities are not legally obligated to give data, which means everything provided is self-reported. The city of Gqeberha did not report any data for the 2023 Green Drop Watch Report and only reported data for one water treatment facility in the 2023 Blue Drop Watch Report.

In the 2022 Blue Drop Report, the NMBM water system is characterized in this way: “acceptable to excellent microbiological and chemical monitoring compliance was achieved for six of the seven supply systems indicating that the water supplied from these systems may be suitable for domestic use.” The 2022 Green Drop Report awards NMBM as the best-performing department of public works region in South Africa. Yet, the municipality reported earlier this year that there are dangerously high levels of cancer-causing chemicals in the water, presumably because there are such high levels of bacteria and microorganisms. Do we put the blame on the Nooitgedacht system? (the infrastructure that is built to transfer water from the Free State Province Gariep Dam, to Nelson Mandela Bay.) If so, can we also say the water crisis is a result of drought?

Furthermore, information about tenders for fixing leaks, drilling boreholes, and providing water trucks is not publicly available. Last year the Water Crisis Committee asked for this information through the Promotion of Access to Information Act, but no response was forthcoming. We cannot think about fixing the municipal water system without understanding the state of the infrastructure, the political economy of the water crisis, and who are the actors involved in addressing this crisis.

There is clearly a lack of transparency and inequity in Gqeberha’s water system. What is the rate of water consumption by industry, manufacturing, tourism, or otherwise? How much are these industrial businesses paying for water and what are their debts? What is the discrepancy in consumption between wealthy suburbs and townships? How do we know where the city’s iron rivers flow? The City should not be punishing the poor working class through bogus bills to cover corporate plunder.

Follow the money.

About the Author

Siyabulela Mama is a researcher at the Centre for Integrated Post-School Education and Training at Nelson Mandela University and is an organizer at the NMB Water Crisis Committee.

Antony Martel is an ecosocialist organizer and PhD Candidate at Nelson Mandela University. He is also a member of the NMB Water Crisis Committee.

Further Reading