South Africa’s water crisis – experts warn about ‘futile fixes’

 ·14 Apr 2024

While the national government wants to fix South Africa’s impending water crisis by broadening water sources, experts have warned that this will prove futile if the country’s current water problems aren’t dealt with at the same time.

This includes fixing existing water infrastructure, making sure that municipalities can actually handle more supplies and educating the masses about proper water use and the need to conserve the critical resource.

The deputy minister of the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS), David Mahlobo, recently said that the country needs to significantly increase and diversify its supply management through:

  • Commissioning the production of groundwater (borehole) systems;

  • Seawater desalination plants;

  • Water reuse from treated wastewater systems;

  • and water reclamation.

Why do we need more supply systems?

People waiting to collect drinking water in Newlands during a drought in Cape Town. Photo: Mark Fisher

The deputy minister warned that the country faces the threat of a water deficit.

According to a study by the DWS, “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.”

Currently, over R100 billion worth of water supply system projects are underway, and each supply intervention project outlined proves costly to the fiscus.

While the country is looking to get ahead of the anticipated exponential increase in demand, compounding factors over the past several years have led to a decline in the quality of water provision.

Recently released reports by the DWS — including the GreenBlue, and No Drop Reports – paint a concerning image of the current state of the provision of the essential resource, showing that at a countrywide average:

  • 51% of water provided has poor to bad microbiological water quality status;

  • 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.

Reasons for this include inadequate planning and management, shortage of qualified personnel to oversee crucial processes, significant underinvestment in infrastructure which has seen it rapidly deteriorate, vandalism, corruption, a surge in demand, and unreliable power supply – creating the perfect storm over the past decade.

Futile if other issues are not addressed

Experts say that while supply management interventions are crucial, these efforts will prove futile if the country does not simultaneously address other mounting water issues.

“While I agree that we have to change our relationship with water and definitely all be involved in saving, reusing and recycling water – we have to prioritise fixing our existing infrastructure and municipalities ability to supply water services,” said Dr Ferrial Adam from WaterCAN.

Issues that require attention include improving its poor record of water conservation and demand management, as well as improving the performance and adherence to standard operating procedures for drinking water treatment and wastewater treatment.

Water gushing out of a burst pipe in Johannesburg. Photo: Candice Willmore

According to the deputy minister, much of this has been attributed to various local governments.

These local governments owe over R19 billion to water boards due to “poor billing and revenue collection practices” and a “lack of proper budget allocation for maintenance and operations by the municipal councils.”

“Our municipalities can certainly improve on leakage reduction, which results in the avoidable and concerning waste of a very expensive and scarce resource [given that] the global water network leakage minimum is ~ 15%,” said Professor Adesola Ilemobade from the Wits School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Ilemobade believes that intervention from DWS can drastically improve this.

There are examples of major interventions of water supply resources, such as the phased 6-month maintenance of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project.

Additionally, Adam said that we “cannot talk about water resources without addressing the fact that almost 70% of Wastewater Treatment Works do not operate well and are spewing sewage into rivers and water bodies -all of the plans could be meaningless if we do not fix municipal water systems.”

What is needed going forward

Ilemobade said that this effort must include balancing supply and demand management.

“Due to decreasing freshwater volumes and rapidly growing economies and populations, one cannot focus on [supply] management to the exclusion of [demand] management,” said Ilemobade.

He added that all levels of government need to adopt an “integrated strategy” to ensure that water demand is reduced and water supply capacity is increased.

Initiatives under demand-side management include demand reduction through education, awareness, technology (e.g. leakage and pressure reduction) and implementation of tariffs.

“One aspect of demand management that municipalities have not particularly excelled in is awareness (campaigns that show that efficiently using water makes sense) and education (training and engagement on how to efficiently use water),” said Ilemobade.

Initiatives under supply management, which the deputy minister has backed, include the implementation of water reuse plants, water reclamation plants, new dams, desalination plants, and rainwater harvesting.

Adam believes South Africa needs “to prioritise fixing our existing infrastructure and municipalities’ ability to supply water services.”

According to Adam, priority water interventions should involve repairing and upgrading infrastructure, identifying and fixing leaks, ensuring adequate budget allocation for infrastructure maintenance, renewing and extending existing water systems, addressing vandalism, and improving access to clean drinking water.

Additionally, speaking about the deputy minister’s focus on groundwater (boreholes), Adam said that it “is not an infinite supply—there has to be improved regulation to monitor the amount of water being used as well as the quality of groundwater.”

New water SOE in the pipeline

In March 2024, the South African Parliament passed the South African National Water Resources Infrastructure SOC Bill to address municipal water service deficiencies.

This legislation aims to create the South African National Water Resources Infrastructure Agency as a significant public entity and state-owned company.

According to DWS, the sweeping reforms are intended to attract private investment, enforce accountability for non-performance, and remedy a crisis that has caused outages nationwide.

“Amid water service delivery pressures in some parts of the country, this new Agency is envisioned to help create a reliable water supply in the country,” said Parliament.

Read: Government’s answer to the water crisis

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