South Africa

Water-shedding warning for South Africa

South Africa needs R1 trillion over the next ten years to repair and upgrade its water infrastructure, and municipal management is critical to solving the crisis.

This is according to BMI senior operational risk analyst Lerato Mzezewa, who said they expect water-shedding episodes to persist in the short term.

She explained that South Africa does not have a water shortage. Rather, the water crisis is caused by the loss of South African tap water due to leaking pipes, theft, and non-payment.

“In the short term, addressing water shortages hinges on efficient financial and municipal management,” she said.

“As water management is led by municipalities, they will be instrumental in addressing water distribution challenges across provinces.”

BMI expects municipality-led measures to manage water to persist, with upside risks for improved service delivery.

However, resource constraints will prolong water-rationing episodes in the near term, with financial and resource constraints being the most critical.

Mzezwa explained that major water infrastructure upgrades are costly and long-term endeavours.

It is estimated that upgrading and repairing South Africa’s water infrastructure to meet growing demand will cost about R1 trillion over the next ten years.

BMI said securing long-term water supply in South Africa will encompass substantial infrastructure projects, such as expanding the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. 

This project is vital for enhancing water availability to Gauteng – South Africa’s most populous province and economic powerhouse – and the neighbouring regions. 

However, the Phase II expansion of the project has encountered an eight-year delay, shifting its completion from 2019 to 2028 and consequently intensifying the challenges of water scarcity. 

The expansion is estimated to cost R40 billion and aims to boost the water supply significantly.

Adding to the complexity, a scheduled six-month maintenance shutdown from October 2024 to March 2025 will impact the Free State and the greater Johannesburg area. 

“These substantial delays and the impending shutdown underscore the critical need for developing alternative water sources and establishing robust contingency plans to safeguard businesses, the agricultural sector and essential services against water supply disruptions,” BMI said.

Private sector participation

Water governance expert Richard Meissner previously said South Africa’s private sector has the necessary skills and resources to effectively run the country’s water plants and will help alleviate the current water crisis.

Inadequate planning and a lack of insight into how the water system works are at the heart of South Africa’s 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.

This has led to concerns of social unrest and the collapse of municipalities as South Africa’s water woes mount.

Therefore, to address the crisis, Water Minister Senzo Mchunu plans to overhaul the national water industry and strip municipalities of responsibility for its provision.

The reforms are intended to attract private investment, enforce accountability for non-performance and remedy a crisis that has seen outages nationwide.

“The private sector is the way to go when it comes to water provisioning,” Meissner told eNCA. 

“We must remember that under the Water Services Act, municipalities are both water authorities and water providers, so they are both players and referees.” 

He explained that, in simple terms, Mchunu’s plan to reform the Act would make municipalities water authorities only, and then the water providers would be the private sector. 

The private sector already adheres to various corporate governance structures and operates on a profit basis, which means it has the financial resources to manage South Africa’s water systems.

Meissner specified that this would not mean the privatisation of water as a resource in South Africa.

Rather, the private sector will employ its financial resources and technical skills to run wastewater treatment plants and water purification plants in South Africa. 


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