South Africa’s largest city needs R25 billion to fix its water infrastructure, and the country needs R140 billion to replace its outdated infrastructure.
Johannesburg and its surrounds have been hit by severe water cuts so far in 2023, and while water interruptions have been happening for years, they have been scaled up dramatically in recent weeks.
The deteriorating situation recently forced the Minister of Water and Sanitation, Senzo Mchunu, to intervene.
On 27 September, he announced a new initiative called “water-shifting” to deal with the shortages.
“Water shifting is to the water sector as load-shedding is to the energy sector”, said water scientist Dr Anthony Turton.
“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.”
Turton said the water supply is being mismanaged, resulting in shortages in some parts of the country, despite its damns being full.
“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.”
“It is not a water scarcity issue. It is an institutional failure issue.”
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.”
CEO of the South African Chamber, Benoit Le Roy, agreed with Turton that the problem is inadequate maintenance and investment from the distributors of water and municipalities.
The issue is the inability to get water from bulk suppliers to the end consumer, Le Roy said to eNCA.
It is estimated that 50% of the water from bulk water suppliers in South Africa does not reach the end consumer due to leakages, theft, and failing infrastructure.
“We need to fix the leaking buckets. It will cost about R25 billion to fix Johannesburg’s water infrastructure, and you cannot do it overnight,” Le Roy said.
He estimated that if work began now to upgrade and develop Johannesburg’s water infrastructure, it would take a year to 18 months for residents to feel the effect.
“We need to move. That is the big thing. We are talking a lot and raising awareness, but we are not moving.”
It is estimated that it will cost South Africa R140 billion to replace its ageing bulk water infrastructure and take R1.4 billion annually to maintain.
However, a national water plan released in 2019 said R900 billion needs to be spent on water supply and storage infrastructure by 2030 due to increased consumption.