South Africa

Water shortages threaten municipal collapse

Water shortages in parts of South Africa, particularly Gauteng, may result in the collapse of municipalities that are unable to provide basic services to their constituents. 

This is feedback from water scientist Professor Anthony Turton, who told Newzroom Afrika that water shortages in South Africa are not only the new normal but are part of an emerging trend of infrastructure collapse. 

“Water shortages are part of a new trend where we can see that our infrastructure is not in healthy shape at all, and politicians are only waking up now,” Turton said. 

Turton is particularly concerned about the water infrastructure in South Africa’s economic hub, Gauteng, which has suffered the most with water shortages. 

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

“This comes from the fact that Rand Water is unable to keep u with demand because it cannot supply any more water to Gauteng as half of it is lost before it reaches the end user.”

The latest reports from the Department of Water and Sanitation indicate that around 50% of water in South Africa is lost in transit between bulk suppliers, such as Rand Water, and the end user due to leakages. 

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

If Rand Water is unable to meet demand, then it cannot provide the excess supply necessary to fill its storage capacity. 

Turton said this would result in the supplier reaching a ‘threshold of concern’ – once it goes beyond that, the system is likely to collapse. 

“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.

“I refer here initially to eThekwini, which is probably the first metro in South Africa to have failed and been unable to self-correct. The next one that is very likely to go this route is Johannesburg.”

Inadequate planning and a lack of insight into how the water system works are at the heart of the water problems, Turton explained. 

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.


Top JSE indices