South Africa

Social unrest looms from South Africa’s water woes

Water shortages in many regions of South Africa, particularly its economic hub of Gauteng, will result in social unrest as they risk destabilising the country’s economy. 

This is feedback from water scientist Professor Anthony Turton, who explained to Newzroom Afrika that the current water crisis in South Africa is far from over and that people should prepare for it to get worse. 

In particular, Turton is concerned about the decline in water supply from Rand Water, the largest bulk water supplier on the continent that provides water to South Africa’s major economic hub, Gauteng. 

“In the case of Gauteng, it is a very specific issue because what you have there are three major metros that contain a significant portion of our national manufacturing capacity and are all at risk from water supply disruption,” Turton said. 

“The current trend from Rand Water’s data suggests that we are currently in a very vulnerable position.” 

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

Turton said that Gauteng is reaching a ‘threshold of concern’ which, once crossed, puts the water system at serious risk of collapse and is unprecedented. 

“The immediate short-term risk now is the potential failure of certain municipalities. When I say failure, I mean the relative chance that those municipalities are unable to self-correct and deliver services,” he said. 

“It doesn’t help that the major of Johannesburg makes statements that are factually incorrect. What is needed is a steady hand on the rudder as things are becoming very unstable and tense.”

Turton said the current issues will likely result in social unrest across the country and may even see a repeat of the 2021 July Riots. 

In particular, the closure of a valve in Johannesburg that cut off water to 20 suburbs from Rand Water signalled to Turton that South Africa might experience widespread unrest. 

“What we do know is that during the 2021 looting in KZN, the precursor to that was tampering with valves and, in fact, they destroyed valves in some municipalities. We don’t know if this is part of that,” Turton said. 

“We have seen in the recent unrest in Durban that there have been videos of activists damaging water valves and infrastructure. This could well be part of a trend, and it is very important that we get on top of this. This has the potential to be a national security concern.” 

“We are now in a period of time where it is essentially unpredictable.”

Turton previously said the crisis extends beyond water, as the resource is foundational for any economy to function. 

“You must appreciate the fact that water is the foundation of your national economy. It is the foundation of social stability,” he said. 

“Once your water infrastructure starts collapsing, you start to see things like social instability, the flight of capital out of the country, businesses collapsing, and the loss of jobs.” 

“This is a national crisis. It is an existential threat to the very viability of our national economy,” Turton said. 

He urged the private sector to work with the government to address this crisis, as it is entirely fixable if corrective action is taken swiftly – starting with the end of cadre deployment. 

“I think we would have to start off first with technically competent people who are not politically connected being employed. That is the most important thing,” Turton said when asked how to solve the crisis. 

“This whole idea of cadre deployment in the water sector, as far as I am concerned, has brought us to this point where we are today.”

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