The Water Mafia crisis sees SA’s most vital resource under threat

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The South African water sector is under siege. In a disturbing parallel to the notorious ‘construction mafias’, water or tanker mafias—criminal syndicates thriving on the country’s water crisis—are sabotaging water infrastructure for profit. These groups are capitalising on government failures, ensuring taps remain dry, and creating a state of dependence on their costly services.

Water scarcity is not unfamiliar to South Africans. However, it has been worsened by these mafias. In regions like Gauteng, Durban, and Cape Town, households endure days, sometimes weeks, without water, resulting in the intervention of Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu, who introduced ‘water shifting’ to manage the shortages.

The tanker mafias are profiting from the government’s failure to maintain water infrastructure. But beyond that, Anthony Turton a water expert from the University of the Free State, says these mafias deliberately damage public water infrastructure to extend lucrative contracts with municipalities. They also source water from unregulated dams and rivers, bypassing essential quality controls, and pose serious health risks to the communities they claim to serve.

In Hammanskraal, a cholera outbreak has been linked to these practices. With 21 reported deaths and numerous hospitalisations, the spotlight turned to the Tshwane municipality’s R85.3 million expenditure on private water tankers—a tenfold increase since 2018. Amidst the crisis, questions arose about the water’s origin, with allegations suggesting that tanker operators may be culpable for the cholera spread.

The malicious actions of the water mafias reflect the endemic nature of corruption and mismanagement within the water sector. Ferrial Adam, a water rights activist, underscores that while no direct political links have been confirmed, the ties between officeholders and water mafias cannot be entirely dismissed given the corruption surrounding water contracts.

Facing a dual threat of water scarcity and criminal exploitation, South Africa’s vulnerable communities suffer the most. The poor, who cannot afford alternative water sources, are left at the mercy of these mafias and an ineffectual government response. The ‘water shifting’ strategy, although designed to quell immediate unrest addresses the symptoms rather than the cause of corruption.

Databuild CEO Morag Evans stresses that this crisis requires more than government intervention.

“The water sector must embrace innovative solutions, much like the construction industry’s use of technology to combat site invasions. Drones, remote monitoring, and other digital tools could serve as an effective deterrent against water infrastructure sabotage, ensuring the integrity of the water supply chain,” says Evans.

She says that cooperation among stakeholders—municipalities, law enforcement, and community leaders—is crucial.

“Strong legal frameworks must be enforced to protect water infrastructure and penalise those who threaten this critical resource. The collective will and action are imperative to secure not only the water supply but also the health and safety of the South African people,” he adds.

The water mafia, with its chokehold on resources, does not just steal water; it robs the country of its health, stability, and prosperity.