The real reason for South Africa’s water crisis

 ·17 Oct 2023

In addressing the ongoing challenges in resolving water shortages across South Africa, many municipal and provincial suppliers have blamed load shedding, climate change, capacity, and even wasteful residential consumption as the main culprits for the crisis.

However, several experts say the root cause is simply poor governance – with authorities neglecting the deterioration of water infrastructure.

Gauteng’s main metros and parts of Durban and Cape Town are currently facing major water supply issues, with households going without water for days and, in some cases, weeks.

The deteriorating situation recently forced the Minister of Water and Sanitation, Senzo Mchunu, to intervene. On 27 September, he announced a new initiative – “water-shifting” – which is similar to that of Eskom’s load shedding.

Rand Water CEO Sipho Mosai said the problem is not a water shortage, per se, but rather the failings within the value chain and the need to conserve water amid high consumption and climate change.

He added that the first issue facing water supply is load shedding, which results in pumping stations being unable to pump water – meaning reservoirs cannot recover fast enough.

However, he even said that the main contributor to Gauteng’s lack of water supply is residents’ modes of consumption – such as using water for non-drinking purposes like watering lawns.

Mosai said many residents in Gauteng use a lot of precious water to water their gardens, which often comprise invasive plant species that require a large amount of water – adding that 49% of the water that reaches the consumer goes into the garden, and this wasteful water usage and the overall high consumption rate are to blame for the water shortage.

However, speaking with eNCA, water scientist Anthony Turton said that while climate change and other factors may exacerbate water shortages, the main culprit is governance and poor infrastructure maintenance.

“Climate change is definitely something we should monitor in the background, but it is not a root cause of any water shortages. In fact, many dams are the fullest they’ve been for a long period of time,” said Turton.

“Ultimately, it all comes down to infrastructure and long-term planning. The recent implementation of water shifting clearly indicates that the system has failed,” he added.

He noted that the issues directly result from poor governance and a lack of action at the municipal level, which have “done nothing since 1994 to adapt to the needs of the evolving cities’. For example, he said Johannesburg only has about five years left in its infrastructure design cycle.

As a regulator, the Department of Water and Sanitation’s actions must be brought into focus because it is their duty to prevent these things from happening, he added.

UNISA’s integrated water resource management specialist, Anja Du Plessis, added that while load-leading and heatwaves have contributed to the water supply crisis and higher consumption rates – it’s unfair to put the blame solely on the consumer.

She said that ailing infrastructure and a lack of maintenance significantly contribute to Gauteng’s water loss.

“Rand Water says that Gauteng is using 300 litres per person per day, but they fail to include the fact that 41% of that water is lost before it even gets to the consumer,” she said.

Interestingly, Rand Water itself noted that, on average, across the 18 municipalities it supplies – 46% of the water supplied is non-revenue water, meaning 46% is lost due to poor infrastructure, i.e. leaks, etc. It even added that this is as much as 60% in certain municipalities.

Du Plessis agreed with Turton and said decaying infrastructure is a significant issue which hasn’t been addressed for the past two decades. Warnings have been given by several researchers since 2002, saying that we need to give our water infrastructure the proper attention and move away from just putting down new pipes.

Du Plessis said that while putting down new pipes is suitable for rural areas regarding water access, it doesn’t help in the cities where we do not maintain what we already have.

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