The Eastern Cape is South Africa’s second largest province in land area with a population of just below 6.5million people.
The two former homeland areas, Ciskei and Transkei, contribute to its characterisation as one of the country’s poorest provinces.
Poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment are key characteristics, further evidenced by the absence of key infrastructure needed to deliver basic services such as electricity, water, sanitation, primary healthcare and education.
The population is largely supported by state social grants and over time, little investment has been realised in terms of commercial agri-business, manufacturing and other job-creating sectors with the potential to up-skill citizens in the region.
Agricultural activity in the area is that of small-scale subsistence farmers whose limited access to water and much needed irrigation infrastructure prevents growth towards commercial, large-scale agriculture.
In his State of the Nation Address in 2012 President Jacob Zuma announced the intention of government to launch a massive infrastructure rollout programme aimed at boosting the economy, creating job opportunities and improving the social conditions of our people. Particular focus was to be given to rural development and the need to develop infrastructure in rural areas and particularly, developing spatial economic zones based on related infrastructure investment.
Projects identified included the Mzimvubu Dam project located in the former Transkei, on the eastern side of the Eastern Cape.
Records show the first feasibility studies undertaken on the possibility of a dam to capture water from the Mzimvubu River and its key tributaries such as the Tsitsa, Tina and Mzintlava Rivers were done as early as 1962.
Over the years the apartheid and homeland governments considered developing this critical national asset, but due to mainly political reasons aimed at limiting the economic growth of the homelands, the project was never implemented despite all indicators pointing to its socio-economic viability and necessity.
The Mzimvubu River flows from the north-eastern end of the Eastern Cape, from Matatiele bordering Lesotho, through to the Indian Ocean at Port St Johns. Flowing over 250 kilometres and with a catchment of nearly 20000 square kilometres, the river is one of the largest rivers currently without a dam in the country.
Development of the Mzivumbu Dam is important for three critical and distinct reasons:
First, the constitution directs the state to provide and extend access to clean and safe drinking water to the people.
This includes investing in the related infrastructure to serve communities in rural parts of the country where such services are yet to be realised.
Second, the economic status of the region requires state-driven infrastructure investment with the potential to create a conducive environment for private sector off-take agreements that have the potential to grow existing and develop new industries.
Last, the recent droughts have shown the need to invest in infrastructure for the purposes of storing water, not merely for distribution and supply, but for periods when water security of the country is threatened by events such as the drought.
Thus, as the department of water and sanitation, we have, in line with the President’s pronouncement and government’s programme of action, intensified our efforts to bring into reality the Mzimvubu Water project.
The project entails developing two dams – the Ntabelanga and Lalini.
The proposed Ntabelanga Dam will store an estimated 490 million cubic meters of water, with the slightly smaller Lalini Dam holding 232 million cubic meters.
In addition, a hydro-electric power plant capable of generating 47.5 megawatts of power and producing 200 million kilowatt hours of energy per annum on average has been identified as an added opportunity available to the scheme.
The social component of the project will assist in providing access and guaranteeing water security for over 60 villages in the immediate areas around the Mzimvubu catchment area until 2050.
Communities in towns such as Tsolo, Ugie, Maclear, Qumbu, Mt Frere, Mt Ayliff, Ntabankulu, Libode and Mthatha will thus benefit from a reliable water supply scheme that not only comprises dams but includes additional infrastructure to treat and reticulate the available water.
A total of 726000 people will be the immediate beneficiaries of the scheme, which covers estimated population growth in the area over the next 30 years.
Economically, with the R15.3-billion estimated spend on construction of the two dams and related infrastructure, we anticipate a significant economic boost for the region.
A total of 7070 job opportunities, direct and indirect, will be realised during the construction phase of the project.
The Eastern Cape currently has an unemployment rate of 32.2% with 64% of the population in the province earning less than R9600 per annum.
The Mzimvubu Dam project is therefore targeted equally for water provision as much as it is a massive job creation project to improve the economic status and skills of citizens within the region.
Post-construction economic activities are expected to generate R778-million per annum to the Regional Growth Domestic Product.
Employment opportunities during this phase of the project range from between 2971 to 5440 direct, indirect and induced jobs, depending on the level of labour intensity in the irrigated agriculture schemes and other new industries.
This translates into a wage bill ranging from between R240-million to R325-million per annum.
Through Mzimvubu, the government anticipates an economic boost in the region through tourism, agro-processing (including produce packaging plants etc) and development of new human settlements, all reliant and built on the back of this significant infrastructural investment.
Providing water security for both domestic and industrial use in the area is fundamental to promoting future investment of industries reliant on reliable water and energy supply.
For us as government, Mzimvubu is a priority precisely because it provides us with an opportunity to invest in our people, their communities and in the future of their children.
It allows us an opportunity to break the cycle of poverty, under-development and dependency on state grants for survival.
For the first time, an opportunity is presenting itself for the democratic government to end the migrant labour cycle that relegates this part of our country to being a labour sending region, feeding young men and women to the mines as unskilled labour.
Recently, some of our consistent critics of transformation and the development of black socio-economic interests have sought to question the viability of the Mzimvubu Dam project and more so, the potential involvement of the Chinese government.
Through false allegations and scare tactics, these critics have sought to create an impression that an attempt was being made to favour Chinese companies and labour at the expense of our own transformation targets in the implementation of this project.
Whilst it is correct that the South African and Chinese governments are engaged in negotiations on funding models available for the project and others, through our bilateral and the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (Focac) agreements, these will be finalised with strict adherence to the constitution and laws of South Africa.
We shall not compromise our people’s interests and ideals of Radical Economic Transformation.
Should we find agreement with the Chinese government, the principles of Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment will be enforced alongside those of a competitive bidding process, localisation, fairness and transparency within the ambits of the law and agreements reached.
The Mzimvubu Dam project will soon be a reality, following more than 50 years of conceptualisation and pondering.
This administration, as led by President Jacob Zuma, is on the verge of changing the future development trajectory of the Eastern Cape to empower the people and future generations of the region.
Nomvula Mokonyane is Minister of Water and Sanitation