High and dry?

After a water cut left residents of 10 suburbs in eastern Johannesburg high and dry for 25 hours recently—leading to the incongruous sight of suburbanites queuing with water buckets on their heads—there are fears that water may become the next big utility crisis.

But experts in the field say it is too soon to panic.

“The water infrastructure [in Johannesburg] is probably about 90 years old and municipalities have been delaying replacement because of other water priorities in the country,” says David McDonald, co-director of the Municipal Services Project at Queens University in Canada, a research initiative studying reforms in municipal service delivery in Southern Africa.

McDonald says that while South Africa does have a water crisis it is on a far smaller scale than the electricity crisis. “Water systems tend to be more localised and are easier to maintain. Electricity systems are harder to maintain because they require much work, like building of power stations.”

The social movements beg to differ. The Coalition Against Water Privatisation believes a water crisis is inevitable. Patra Sindane, an organiser for the group, says: “In the years to come we will definitely have water load-shedding. We will see a situation where people use the shortage of water to push their own agendas and people who profit from water will have a lot of money, while poor people will have to compromise their hygiene.”

Johannesburg Water says it has set aside R5-billion for the improvement of water infrastructure in the next five years. “In August 2007 we conducted research to establish the patterns of pipe bursts around the city. With the findings of that study we were able to estimate the capital needed for infrastructure improvement,” says Baldwin Matsimela, Johannesburg Water’s communications manager.

Not only does the city have an ageing water infrastructure, says Matsimela, it also is unable to cope with the massive and rapid expansion. “The city has grown extensively in the past decade or two and the old infrastructure is not coping with the growth, so with these funds we will lessen the strain that growth has on water infrastructure over the next five years.”

Of the R5-billion earmarked for infrastructure upgrades, R2,4-million has been set aside for a programme in the southern suburbs of Glenvista, Kibler Park and Ridgeway, where work started at the end of March.

For the Johannesburg city centre R3-million has been set aside for upgrading a 64-year-old water pipe, which will include relining 2,1km of the water main and installing a protection system to protect the pipe from wear and tear.

Carol Milner, DA ward councillor for Kensington, says it is time the city revamped its water works. “A lot of pressure to replace existing infrastructure came from the World Health Organisation, which found that some of the water pipes are made of lead—they have to be replaced because they could be harmful to the water.

“It’s good that the money is set aside to improve infrastructure, we just hope that we will be able to see it go into its intended use,” she says.

Thembelihle Tshabalala

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