South Africa

South Africa’s water management has failed 

South Africa’s water infrastructure has rapidly deteriorated due to institutional failure in managing the country’s water systems, leading to water shortages and unsafe drinking water in many areas. 

This is feedback from water scientist Dr Anthony Turton, who told the SABC that institutional failure is behind the cause of the country’s looming water crisis. 

In particular, Johannesburg and its surrounds have been hit by severe water cuts so far in 2023. 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. 

When releasing the full Blue Drop, Green Drop, and No-Drop Water report for 2023, Mchunu blamed the increase in the deteriorating water supply on historical challenges of ageing infrastructure. 

Turton dismissed this excuse out of hand. 

“Let the facts speak for themselves. The ANC has been in power for over a quarter of a century. The population has doubled, so what have they done about upgrading infrastructure? To blame something else is disingenuous,” Turton said. 

“The simple fact of the matter is that your infrastructure has deteriorated, and your institutions have failed. That is the important thing. Institutional failure is far more significant than ageing infrastructure.”

Turton used the example of South Africa’s wastewater plants, which treat the country’s 7 billion litres of wastewater generated daily. 

The wastewater is mostly fed back into South Africa’s rivers after it is treated to be reused, with a small amount being deposited into the ocean. 

However, the latest data shows that two-thirds of the country’s wastewater plants are dysfunctional. 

This results in the increasing levels of unsafe drinking water in the country. 

“The situation is dire, and it is a result of institutional failure”, with most of the blame being laid at the feet of municipalities as the Department of Water and Sanitation does not have jurisdiction over these areas. 

Turton said that this could be turned around with sufficient political will. 

“I would almost say we are at an inflexion point in our history. The forthcoming elections are going to play a considerable role in deciding whether South Africa is going to continue to sink like the Titanic or slowly recover.”


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