South Africa

Severe water shortages loom as Gauteng has no reserve supply capacity

Minister of Water and Sanitation, Senzo Mchunu, has pleaded with residents of Gauteng to reduce their water consumption as the water supply remains vulnerable to disruptions and may not be able to meet demand, resulting in shortages.

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. 

Yesterday, in Parliament, Mchunu urged residents in Gauteng to limit their water consumption as the relationship between supply and demand is “very tight”.

“The system is vulnerable to disruptions caused by heavy load-shedding, electromechanical breakdowns or theft of cables,” Mchunu said.

“Usually, such breakdowns would not have a noticeable effect on water supply due to the ability to draw on reserve supply capacity. But now, there is no reserve supply capacity.”

Mchunu said that because water is gravity-fed from reservoirs to households, high-lying areas are the worst affected.

Demand for water in Gauteng has grown rapidly as its population has grown, and very little investment has been made to increase water supply.

Furthermore, up to 50% of the water from the bulk supplier, in this case, Rand Water, is lost before it reaches the end consumer due to leakages and other infrastructure failures.

Recently, Rand Water COO Mahlomola Mehlo said that water supply during the festive season cannot be guaranteed.

Mehlo explained that water supply is based upon the resource’s abstraction, purification, and distribution. All three are dependent on electricity.

If the electricity supply cannot be guaranteed, neither can the water supply to all areas.

Rand Water has plans to mitigate the effects of power outages, and its facilities are exempt from load-shedding.

The main problem is its old infrastructure, which is deteriorating and making it increasingly difficult to get water to the end consumer.

Mehlo stressed that this is a countrywide issue and not unique to Rand Water.

“If you consider all the variables at play and those that we have to manage and keep in check, at any given time, one of those variables can fail us,” Mehlo said.

“The incidents of the recent weeks have actually shown us that there are no guarantees in the provision of water, especially during this period. What I can guarantee is every effort is being made to ensure that we do not experience such.”

The areas most likely to be affected will be the high-lying parts of Gauteng as they require boosting stations to pump water up to them, making them more vulnerable to infrastructure failure and reliant on reliable electricity.

In short, there is no water shortage as the country’s dams are full. The issue is the inability to get water from bulk suppliers to the end consumer.

Minister of Water and Sanitation, Senzo Mchunu

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

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,” Turton said. 

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 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.”

Director-general of the Department of Water and Sanitation, Dr Sean Phillips, said that municipal water services must be fixed to prevent water shortages. 

“The overall priority, if we are going to avoid water shortages and risks of water shortages that will be raised by climate change, is to fix municipal water services,” said Phillips on the sidelines of COP28. 

The director-general specifically referred to governance and institutional issues, not technical challenges.

“We’ve got the technical expertise in South Africa to do what needs to be done. We’ve got the technical expertise to do water reuse, we’ve got the technical expertise to build dams, and we have the finance in the country to do these things as well,” Phillips added.

“We are not lacking in skills as a country, and we are not lacking in the finance. Where the challenge is with regard to fixing municipal infrastructure is institutional and governance,” he emphasised.


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