“… the majority of “plumbers” are not qualified, the majority of materials being used are non-compliant, the majority of plumbing installations are non-compliant, the municipalities are not able to control the situation on their own and the informal, non-compliant, industry is slowly killing the formal trained and qualified plumbers. To say that the situation is dire would be a gross understatement. It is small wonder that South Africa finds itself in the midst of a growing water, sanitation and health crisis.”
With the recent outbreak of cholera in several regions of South Africa the public has, possibly for the 1st time, become aware that water borne diseases are not just a phenomenon in far flung rural areas. It is extremely sad that it has taken the deaths of so many people to raise the subject with the public and to galvanise authorities into action. The media and most authorities have raised the important issues of the treatment of both wastewater and potable water as being key in protecting public health. These are certainly important and cannot be ignored, but there is another key factor which has largely been ignored in most of the discussions and debates: the state of the plumbing industry.
Whilst building dams, bulk water supply lines, water treatment plants and wastewater treatment works are critical infrastructure which any country needs to function. People often forget that plumbing forms a crucial part of these systems. Potable water needs to get from these big infrastructure projects into homes and businesses, wastewater needs to be disposed of safely and directed to treatment plants and rainwater needs to be disposed of correctly. If this is not done properly the whole system becomes effectively useless. A potable water treatment plant becomes useless if the water is contaminated or lost through leaks before it even gets to homes, a wastewater treatment plant is useless if the sewerage never even gets to it, if large volumes of rainwater enter sewer systems it damages treatment plants and causes huge spillages of raw sewage, not to mention flooding. Getting these systems installed correctly is the role of the plumber.
When most people think of plumbers, they think of someone who repairs a tap or geyser or unblocks a drain but there is much more going on behind the scenes. For these systems to work properly they must be installed, connected, and repaired in particular ways, using the correct material to function properly. If not, they end up causing damages and putting the health of the public at risk. So, what is the state of this important industry? To understand what is happening one needs to look at the research. Sadly, there isn’t a huge amount available but below are the highlights from some of the available research.
- According to the Water Research Commission in 2006 as much as 60% of all plumbing materials being sold in South Africa do not comply to legal requirements. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the situation has worsened since then.
- TIPS (Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies) conducted research in 2018 where they found that of the 126 000 people who identify their job title as “plumber” only an estimated 15 000 were actually qualified.
- n 2019 PEM Consulting found that the plumbing industry is characterised by far more informal activity than formal, with the number of formal enterprises declining every year and the number of informal operators increasing. Most informal enterprises are flying beneath the radar. This gives them a competitive advantage as their costs and commitments to their staff and clients are low.
- In successive surveys by the Institute of Plumbing South Africa (IOPSA) from 2018 to 2022 the single biggest factor affecting plumbers’ ability to succeed was the activities of informal, unqualified “plumbers”.
- Other research by IOPSA found that most municipalities did not have adequate water services bylaws and that these municipalities where not able to adequately control plumbing work being conducted in their jurisdiction. In related research, IOPSA found that as many as 70% of homes in urban areas have non-compliant plumbing installations.
So, to summarise, the majority of “plumbers” are not qualified, the majority of materials being used are non-compliant, the majority of plumbing installations are non-compliant, the municipalities are not able to control the situation on their own and the informal, non-compliant, industry is slowly killing the formal trained and qualified plumbers. To say that the situation is dire would be a gross understatement. It is small wonder that South Africa finds itself in the midst of a growing water, sanitation and health crisis.
The obvious next question would be “what is being done about it?” Unfortunately, the answer is not straight forward. On the legislative side there are various regulations and standards which are being worked on. Sadly, most of these have been stuck in bureaucratic limbo for years, it seems that there is little political will to get them finalised and implemented. The power to enforce the current and future legislation lies firmly in the hands of local government. As most South Africans know, the majority of municipalities are facing very serious challenges. With the exception of a handful of metros, it is highly doubtful that municipalities will have the funds, technical capacity or political will to reverse the current state of affairs.
In the face of this dire situation, IOPSA, the Plumbing Industry Registration Board (PIRB), SA Women in Plumbing (SAWIP), Plumbers Business Forum (PBF) and the Building Construction and Allied Workers Union (BCAWU) have come together to present a plan which would assist greatly. Collectively, these organisations represent the vast majority of formal businesses and workers in the plumbing industry. The idea would require qualified plumbers to register with PIRB, the registered professional body for plumbers, and require the issuing of a certificate of compliance for all plumbing work. Regular proactive auditing is conducted on the plumbers’ work, ensuring compliance, safety, ethics and recourse for the public. Far from impinging on local authorities’ powers, this system will go a long way in assisting them to enforce regulations and protect vital infrastructure and public health. The system has been in operation on a voluntary basis for more than a decade and is working extremely well. Thousands of qualified plumbers are already registered and are subjecting themselves to oversight in the best interests of the industry and public health and safety. What is needed now is the support of government and the broader public.
The situation is indeed dire and if urgent action is not taken very soon, we could see the collapse of a critical trade in South Africa. We do not have the luxury of time and endless debate, for the sake of our nation we need to take action now.