South Africa

South African water crisis – with water-shifting to address outages

Severe water problems have hit many areas across South Africa, and Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu is promoting water-shifting to address this crisis.

Water-shifting is akin to load-shedding, but the flow of water molecules in pipes is restricted instead of disrupting the electricity supply over transmission lines.

Mchunu first announced the initiative on 27 September, aiming to spread the impact of water cuts between communities.

Traditionally, high-lying areas have been the hardest hit by water problems because of the nature of a water distribution system.

Water distribution requires pressure from a water source – typically a reservoir or water tower.

When pressure is lost within the system, high-lying areas are usually affected first, as there is not enough pressure to get the water to them.

To address this issue, there are plans to shift water from a reticulation system with sufficient pressure to a struggling system. The idea is to provide an equitable supply of water to municipal customers.

Professor Anthony Turton from the University of the Free State said water-shifting is an admission by the government that its water supply system has failed.

He told Biznews that the water problems are not caused by scarcity as dams and rivers are at their highest levels in two decades.

He said the main problem is the government’s mismanagement of the water distribution system in towns and cities.

He added that blaming consumers for wasting water is a red herring as most of the water is lost long before it reaches homes and businesses.

Collapsing water infrastructure because of poor maintenance is the leading cause of problems in towns and cities.

Business opportunities

Dr Anthony Turton, professor at the University of the Free State

Like load-shedding creating a booming solar PV and battery backup industry in South Africa, water problems will create business opportunities in the private sector.

Turton said South Africans will have to start recycling, recapturing, and retreating water. Each unit of water will have to be used more than once.

“If we use every water unit in South Africa just slightly more than half again by 2035, we can create employment and have a thriving, investable economy,” he said.

He said the business of recovering, capturing, and recycling water from waste will become a significant business opportunity in the near future.

Another business opportunity lies in utility-scale desalination works for coastal cities from Richards Bay to Cape Town, which are all fundamentally water-constrained.

He gave the example of Australia, where they have successfully implemented a model with multiple desalination plants along their coast.

“Going forward, we are likely to witness public-private partnerships emerging, with the state as a shareholder but not the majority shareholder,” he said.

Turton predicts private capital will be needed to address South Africa’s water problems and invest in new plants.

“These partnerships will include offtake agreements, similar to the energy sector where independent water producers service contracts for municipalities unable to cope,” he said.

He highlighted that there is no shortage of capital, technology, or water in the ocean to solve the water crisis.

“It’s a matter of bringing capital and technology together into independent service providers and raising private capital to service long-term contracts,” he said.

“This is the likely scenario in the next few years, and we’re starting to see it emerging in its early stages.”

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