South Africa faces a water crisis due to the country’s deteriorating infrastructure and dysfunctional municipalities. It results in high levels of wastage and inefficient use of scarce resources, with water outages on the horizon.
Wits Professor Tracy-Lynn Field told Newzroom Afrika that many of South Africa’s dams are at sufficient levels, yet taps are running dry because of deteriorating infrastructure and dysfunctional municipalities.
South Africa is a water-scarce country, resulting in variable water availability – the country often has too little or too much water.
This inherent challenge is exacerbated by the country’s ageing water infrastructure, with over 50% of water lost when transported from treatment plants to household taps.
“The problems around infrastructure are huge. For example, in some municipalities, non-revenue water is over 50% and, at worst, up to 73%,” Field said.
The bulk of this loss lies in the 70.2% attributable to leakages, painting a stark picture of inadequate operation and maintenance of the water distribution infrastructure.
In other words, there is sufficient water in dams and reservoirs across South Africa, but most of it does not reach the end consumer, resulting in shortages.
A strong culture of customer non-payment has also strained the water boards’ financial stability.
As of September 2022, analysts at asset manager Ninety One estimated that outstanding payments amounted to R24.5 billion. Municipalities and waterboards owed R8.5 billion and R7.7 billion, respectively.
Water requires a disproportionate amount of labour and material input to distribute to consumers compared to other natural resources.
The Department of Water and Sanitation estimates the country needs to spend R90 billion a year over the next decade to repair and upgrade existing infrastructure.
Field explained that municipalities and water boards collect enough money to finance the operation of existing water infrastructure, but this is not enough to fund the maintenance of the infrastructure, never mind upgrading it.
Thus, some municipalities will face water shortages in the coming months and years as water demand will outstrip supply in some areas.
These municipalities fail to meet their constitutional obligation to provide water to their constituents.
“It is important to underscore that this is a systemic problem. The broader constitutional arrangements for the provision of water may be something we have to look at,” said Field.
“I would love to be able to put South Africans’ worries at ease, but I cannot. This is a serious political problem that will take years to fix.”
Field warned that the country may experience water shedding similar to South Africa’s electricity crisis.