Water watch increasingly urgent

South Africa is one of the few countries in the world that has made access to water a constitutional right. But although enormous progress has been made to bring water to previously unconnected people since 1994 — in the region of 15-million — many still do not have water on tap. And those who do have access are using a supply that is precarious at best.

Although water was largely ignored as a strategic resource in the past two decades, much like electricity, money is now being pumped into infrastructure. Even so, the supply will remain marginal as the demands of a growing population are compounded by climate change and ageing infrastructure.  

Threats to water

Acid mine drainage
Acid mine drainage contaminates water and is the most immediate threat to water security. It occurs in areas where gold and coal mines have been left unrehabilitated after closure, mainly in Gauteng and Mpumalanga. It is a hugely expensive problem. The Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority, which has been tasked with cleaning Gauteng’s water, is asking for R900-million just for short-term measures. It has received half of that, although the department of water affairs is working on a long-term solution and is confident that the treasury will give it the funding required.

Some municipalities are operating water systems that are more than a century old. As a result, about a third of the water leaks from broken pipes. This is one of the department’s main targets for saving water. Municipalities do not have the budgets to upgrade or even fix most of the problem. Forty-five percent of them have failed to get blue-drop status (a measure of water quality), mainly because of crumbling infrastructure and a lack of skills. Sewage works are also in dire straits. Only 45% of municipalities got a rating of more than 50% in the most recent ‘Green Drop” report, which assesses municipal waste-water works, which meansthey are not cleaning the water in towns properly. Instead, large amounts of E coli are being released into rivers and the water table.

Small local rivers, for example, have always been a barrier to large-scale development. Their combined flow is only equal to half of the Zambezi’s, for example. They also tend to be shallow, which leads to high rates of evaporation. On the eastern seaboard, most flow only short distances before pouring into the ocean. All this means sites for dams are at a premium, which is especially problematic because 80% of rainfall nationally occurs in just five months. All the water for the remainder of the year and for droughts needs to be captured and stored rapidly during the
rainy season.

Population growth
In 1900, the population was four ­million; it is now 50-million. New water infrastructure is rapidly outstripped by population growth. In rural areas, a new water system can lead to people moving to that area and overwhelming it. In informal settlements near big cities, the lack of clean water and sewerage systems leads to further pollution of water resources and waterborne diseases. Industrial growth also leads to mining and farming in marginal areas, which pollutes the sources of rivers.

Climate change
This is the wild card. Statistics are limited, but it is predicted that the western part of the country will get drier and the eastern wetter. Seasons will be more extreme, resulting in more flooding in shorter and heavier rainy seasons and longer droughts. This will put huge pressure on dams, one of the reasons behind their proliferation.

With more extremes will come a greater demand for energy and energy production is a huge consumer of water. There will also be longer periods when water dries up. Hotter temperatures will also drive up the need for irrigation, which already consumes about half of all water. Just 3% less rainfall will drive irrigation needs up by 10%.

With billions allocated to raising dam walls and building new ones, this is the big solution for the department. Dams in more remote areas mean water would serve those communities as well as providing reservoirs that can pipe water to centres of industry. They also mean water for development nodes, such as the Waterberg, could be transferred to local dams. But dams come with their own problems, such as displacing communities and ecosystems, affecting users downstream, who get less water, and reducing water supply to neighbouring countries.

Given the vast quantity of water in the ocean, it is a potential long-term solution. The largest desalination plant in South Africa is at Kenton-on-Sea. Desalination has been a huge success in the Middle East, primarily because of the amount of money that is available there. Locally, it is still prohibitively expensive, but as water prices increase it will become a solution for many coastal cities.

South Africa leads the world in water transfers. Practically all the water in Gauteng comes from somewhere else through water transferred along pipes and rivers. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project is the largest and provides the biggest single source of water for Gauteng and surrounding provinces. These schemes allow water-scarce regions like the Waterberg to get water to lubricate industrial development. With even these schemes reaching maximum supply, plans to create a transfer to the Zambezi are mooted.

Rehabilitated acid mine drainage
Although acid mine drainage water is unsafe, it provides a huge source of water when cleaned. Hundreds of millions of litres of water lie in basins and abandoned mines around the country. But it is still so expensive that water prices need to increase before it becomes sustainable.

The eMalahleni Water Reclamation Plant in Mpumalanga works at a loss now, but it can be cloned when the price reaches about R9 a kilolitre.

Changing habits
Every year during Water Month the department bemoans the fact that South Africans do not realise the scarcity of water. With water being so cheap, people do not think about wasting it. A leaking tap will be left to drip because it is too much effort or expensive to fix. A change in consumer habits can have a huge impact on reducing consumption.

South Africa’s annual rainfall is half the world average and water infrastructure is crumbling. The M&G is keeping tabs

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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