South Africa

Warning about catastrophic water crisis in South Africa

Experts warn of a “catastrophic water supply crisis” and urged South Africans to prepare for worsening water shortages and infrastructure breakdowns.

Experts said Johannesburg faced a “catastrophic water supply crisis” and urged South Africans to prepare for worsening water shortages and infrastructure breakdowns.

This is the warning from water experts, including WaterCAN executive manager Ferrial Adam and Professor Anthony Turton from the UFS Centre for Environmental Management.

People across the country are experiencing problems with water supply as municipalities have neglected to maintain and upgrade their water infrastructure.

Residents of small towns like Harrismith and Lichtenburg often experience prolonged water outages, which can last weeks.

South Africa’s largest cities, including Johannesburg and Tshwane, have joined these small towns with regular water outages.

WaterCAN executive manager Ferrial Adam said it is alarming that authorities are struggling to resolve the dire water supply situation in Johannesburg.

WaterCAN is a leading civil society organisation dedicated to ensuring access to clean and safe water.

“Johannesburg is on the brink of a catastrophic water supply crisis. Rand Water and Joburg Water’s failure to manage water resources has pushed our city to the edge,” she said.

Adam highlighted the alarming reports of dangerously low reservoir levels, emphasising the immediate need for action.

Some water reservoirs and towers in Johannesburg were reported to be empty, with 14 at 10% or less.

“The levels of reservoirs are at historic lows, posing a grave threat to the well-being of our communities,” she said.

She said the impending water supply crisis in Johannesburg demands urgent attention and decisive action.

“We cannot afford to wait any longer. Action must be taken now to avert a full-blown water catastrophe,” said Adam.

The City of Tshwane said Gauteng’s water supply system is experiencing a severe strain, which can lead to a total system collapse.

The city shared this information following an emergency meeting between Rand Water and all the Gauteng metros on 16 March 2024.

“The system is currently below 30% and an immediate intervention is required prompting urgent shut-down of water supply to certain reservoirs in Tshwane,” it said.

“Residents are requested to assist in avoiding the system collapse by using water wisely, sparingly and when it is absolutely necessary.”

Water infrastructure problems

Anthony Turton, professor at the University of the Free State

Johannesburg Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda has apologised for the water problems, which left some residents’ taps dry for two weeks.

Gwamanda said they are resolving the problems as the city’s “reservoirs and towers build more capacity and stabilise”.

When residents threatened a rates boycott for not getting basic services like water, Gwamanda called it “a political strategy and politically motivated to undermine black leadership”.

Professor Anthony Turton slated Gwamanda’s comments, saying they show “he has no clue how these systems work”.

He said inadequate planning and a lack of insight into how the water system works are at the heart of the water problems.

Over the last three decades, a mass migration has occurred into South Africa’s major metropolitan areas.

Despite the rapidly increasing population, the water system has not been sufficiently upgraded to accommodate the higher water demand.

“I am not aware of any major upgrade to the sewage works in South Africa’s major cities over the last twenty years,” he said.

“We have double the number of people living in South Africa’s cities, but we have the same infrastructure as twenty years ago.”

The challenge in South Africa is that a water system’s planning and upgrade cycles take a long time. That means short-term solutions cannot avert a crisis.

He explained that the results of a good decision to address the water crisis would only be seen ten years from now.

“We are on a downhill spiral, and I do not see an end to this crisis in the short term,” Turton said.


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