South Africa

South Africa a failed state with widespread water shortages looming

Experts warn that the taps are running dry and that many of South Africa’s municipalities have collapsed and cannot resolve the problems.

This was one of the findings in AfriForum’s new documentary, Running dry – A nation on the brink, which deals with the current state of affairs.

Areas around the country are experiencing water outages, and many households have been without water for days or weeks.

There are many reasons for the water problems, including deteriorating infrastructure and municipal incompetence.

The situation is unlikely to improve unless municipalities employ competent staff who take pride in their jobs.

Dr Marlene van der Merwe-Botha, a professional scientist with the South African Council for Natural Scientists, said poor employee performance is a severe challenge.

“The root cause of South Africa’s water problems is that there are no consequences for not performing or not doing your job at a municipality,” she said.

She said many municipal managers who have failed to provide their communities with safe drinking water are still in their positions.

“It is criminal what is happening. Whether you do your job or don’t do your job, it makes no difference,” she said.

Ayesha Laher, an environmental scientist and director at AHL Water, said the government’s decision to cancel water audits in 2014 was a big mistake.

After the water audits were cancelled, there was a rapid decline in water quality around South Africa. This was seen after water audits were re-instated two years ago.

“Before the water audits were cancelled, 80% of the country had safe drinking water. Less than 50% of supply systems now have safe drinking water,” she said.

Laher referred to the Blue, Green, and No Drop Certification programmes, which aim to improve municipal drinking water quality and wastewater management.

The audits and certification programmes further address water conservation and demand management.

The reports comprehensively assess the state of all 958 water supply systems in each of the country’s 144 water services authorities.

The 2023 assessment revealed a big decline in drinking water quality and an increase in non-revenue water since the last reports were issued in 2014.

South Africa a failed state with water problems looming

Anthony Turton, professor at the University of the Free State

Professor Anthony Turton, a trained scientist specialising in water resource management, said South Africa had lost its ability to address the water problems.

“South Africa has become a failed state. You can measure it with whatever objective measure you choose to adopt,” he said.

“I define state failure as the inability of an organ of government to convert operational inputs to adequately resourced and appropriate solutions,” he said.

In the water provisioning environment, this means using the Blue, Green, and No Drop Certification programmes to address an area’s water challenges.

The government has failed to use the feedback from these programmes to stop the water problems.

Turton said it is important to examine South Africa’s assurance of supply—the reliability with which a specific quantity of water can be provided.

This measurement is usually expressed as a percentage. 98% reliability means that the specified quantity of water can be supplied 98% of the time.

The design of South Africa’s water supply systems is to provide a 98% assurance of supply. “That means you can have two breakdowns in a hundred years or one in fifty years,” he said.

This assurance of supply includes the volume of water, quality, pressure, price, time, and place.

“Every one of these measurements together must give a 98% guarantee that you will get it,” he said.

It is important to achieve the 98% guarantee because water is the foundation of the national economy. It is an economic enabler.

In many areas of South Africa, the 98% assurance of supply is a distant dream of a bygone era. Getting any water is a challenge.

“What we are seeing across South Africa is the systemic failure of the water services and resource management sectors,” he said.

Van der Merwe-Botha said 64% of South Africa’s sewage works are dysfunctional or in crisis mode.

“This means everything has failed. The institution and the infrastructure have failed, and the processes and systems have failed. There is also no money to fix it,” she said.

“The future is looking far worse than what we have now. The decline is very rapid. We are going to hit rock bottom very soon.”


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