South Africa

Social unrest warning from water infrastructure collapse

South Africa’s deteriorating water infrastructure threatens to plunge the country into widespread social unrest as taps run dry in some of the country’s largest cities. 

This is feedback from water expert and University of the Free State professor Dr Anthony Turton, who told Newzroom Afrika that “we are seeing institutional failure” in the management of water in South Africa. 

Turton said South Africa has enough water to supply the population and businesses comfortably. However, the water supply is being mismanaged, resulting in shortages in some parts of the country. 

“If we manage our water wisely, we certainly have enough to grow our economy and population. The problem is that we are not managing it wisely,” Turton said. 

An estimated 50% of the water from bulk water suppliers in South Africa does not reach the end consumer due to leakages, theft, and failing infrastructure. 

“It is not a water scarcity issue. It is an institutional failure issue,” Turton said. 

Curiously, it is not a national institutional failure but rather the local failure of municipalities to maintain and upgrade their water infrastructure. 

Local municipalities have shown they cannot correct things that have gone wrong despite multiple warnings and signs of failure. 

“We can say that places like Johannesburg Water are a perfect example of state failure at a local level.”

Some solutions are on the table, with the private sector likely having to step in to provide funding for infrastructure projects and expertise. 

“It is in the great interest of the majority of society to resolve this issue. If we do not get this right, there will be an external correction through legal intervention in the courts or a suspension of the Constitution through some or other kind of popular uprising and extrajudicial means.”

To prevent this in the short term, the government has implemented what it has called ‘water shifting’ to avoid the entire collapse of some local water systems. 

“Water shifting is to the water sector as load-shedding is to the energy sector,” Turton said. 

“This essentially prevents a local angry mob from taking to the streets and protesting. That is really all it does. It keeps some people happy for some of the time.”


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