South Africa’s water infrastructure and quality are in crisis, while mismanagement and criminal syndicates stall improvements and sabotage critical pipelines.
The Department of Water and Sanitation’s latest Blue Drop Watch Report found that half of South Africa’s drinking water is of poor quality.
According to the report, the biggest issue with water in the country is drinking water quality, with only 38% and 11% of systems achieving excellent and good microbiological quality, respectively.
Speaking to ENCA, Mike Muller, a professor and civil engineer at the Wits School of Governance, said that poor management is the leading cause of failing water infrastructure.
“You can have good infrastructure, but if you do not have good management, you will get nothing out of it,” said Muller.
Approximately 3 million kilolitres of potable water are lost daily in South Africa due to inadequate infrastructure and leaks. This results in an annual cost of R250 million for the country.
Antony Turton from the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of the Free State added that the water crisis is similar to the electricity failings, where rampant crime, vandalism, and mismanagement take their toll.
Turton said that criminality is deeply embedded in the water management systems. He said that there are criminals that are now targeting sewage systems and then applying for a tender to install an emergency pump to bypass the problem they create.
He said there is a revolving door of copper theft and selling, with many criminals stripping key water infrastructure.
Crime and mismanagement ultimately lead to a handful of municipalities not getting a reliable water supply, with many falling victim to not water not because of a lack of water but a lack of pressure, said Turton.
He added that in South Africa, people get roughly five to six days a month of sufficient water volume.
There is a patchworked approach to fixing water infrastructure whereby no engineers are consulted, and workers are having to revisit a site multiple times to fix a problem that was already addressed, he said.
Muller said that governments need to take into account the thoughts and plans of experienced senior engineers as well as newly qualified people.
Talk of poor water quality was shoved into the spotlight as a cholera outbreak occurred in Hammanskraal, Gauteng, and in the Free State, leading to many deaths.
Following the outbreak, President Cyril Ramaphosa attempted to put South Africans at ease, citing the government’s Water Research Commission data that showed South African water being of a high standard and “compares well with the best in the world”.
The same data, however, proves the opposite.
Muller said that if people are concerned about the quality of their drinking water, the best thing to do is to boil it before they consume it.
He added that putting a little bit of chlorine in water that will be used for general purposes – not consumption – could kill the germs.
Fixing water infrastructure is not an affordable feat for South Africa. For example, on 22 June this year, the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) applied for billions of dollars to fix the water and electricity, among other things, in the country.
A national water plan released in 2019 showed that R900 billion ($49 billion) needs to be spent on water supply and storage infrastructure by 2030.