It could go from bad to worse for water in South Africa

 ·23 Mar 2024

A rapidly growing number of municipalities in South Africa are facing increasing water shortages and questionable water quality.

The situation stems from multiple factors, such as inadequate planning and management, significant underinvestment in infrastructure, vandalism, corruption, a surge in demand, and unreliable power supply – creating the perfect storm over the past decade.

According to government’s 2023 No Drop Report, there is a concern in the “decline in water loss management practices, lack of metering, and poor infrastructure maintenance in majority of the municipalities.”

“Water demand is expected to sharply increase over the next 20 years while the water supply is likely to decline, therefore anticipating a projected supply deficit of 17% by 2030,” added the report.

While the numbers fluctuate from municipality to municipality (with some plunged into a much deeper crisis than others), the Department of Water and Sanitation’s (DWS) recently released reports — including the Green, Blue, and No Drop Reports – show that at a countrywide average:

  • 46% of drinking water systems did not meet microbiological standards;
  • 67.6% of wastewater treatments failed to adequately process sewage and other wastes;
  • 40.8% of water was lost due to leaks or was unaccounted for.

While the water crisis in Gauteng has grabbed headlines of late, it is but one of many examples of water supply issues. From KwaZulu Natal, Mpumalanga, Limpopo to the North West – water supply authorities across the country have been struggling to fulfill their mandates.

South Africa at a ‘critical juncture’

The country is “at a critical juncture,” said the executive manager of WaterCAN, Dr Ferrial Adam.

“This is not the beginning of the water woes in this country and neither is it the end. What we are seeing now will continue and could get worse if we do not act with urgency,” she added.

As the saying goes, the first step to fixing something is admitting that there is a problem – something that Adam says that the government are reluctant to do.

Keeping mum on the issue “is completely political, as some people are afraid that by admitting that there is indeed a crisis, it will reflect badly on them,” said Adam.

Adam said that to prevent a catastrophic countrywide crisis, the government and its entities need to act with urgency and transparency about the condition of water entities and supply systems, saying that it is crucial for the government and its authorities to have regular, open, and honest communication with the public to explain the challenges and update them on the progress.

This, according to Adam, is to avoid a repeat of the “dark years” of the DWS, which saw poor management and leadership lead to low morale among staff and the departure of many good employees – severely deteriorating the department in the process.

Additionally, she said that residents themselves need to become active to ensure that all parties come to the table.

“We need to have a change of behaviour across the board – an all hands on deck approach,” said Adam.

While complimenting the proactive work of the current minister, Senzo Mchunu, and many “excellent professionals” in the department, Adam said that at a local government level, “because of politics, they are not appointing the right people,” to critical positions.

Adam said that while WaterCAN and other water-rights groups are (often but not always) able to get national and provincial government entities to the table, local government have been playing hard to get, leaving residents in the dark about the crisis (which they do not want to admit that it is) and how it plans to deal with it.

Recently, Deputy President Paul Mashatile announced a “service delivery war room” to deal with the underperformance in delivering essential services like water supply to residents.

In an article for TimesLive, Adam said that in the short to medium term, authorities “must work together to provide a far better plan” for:

  • Infrastructure repair and upgrades;
  • Identifying and fixing leaks;
  • Ensuring an adequate budget for infrastructure maintenance;
  • Renewal and extension;
  • Addressing vandalism;
  • Improve access to clean drinking water.

Society must continue “putting pressure on the government,” and “stand up and fight back against mismanagement and corruption,” which led to this situation in the first place, concluded Adam.

Overall, a collective effort by civil society, government, and other stakeholders is needed to ensure water security in South Africa.

Read: The best and worst municipalities for drinking water in every province in South Africa

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