Speaking at a Mail & Guardian Critical Thinking Forum, held last week, Mike Muller, a member of the National Planning Commission, said Gauteng had actually run out of water 70 years ago. And since then it had made up the difference by importing water at huge expense from as far afield as Lesotho. This uneasy balance required a careful balancing of water needs across the country, he said.
A severe shortage in skilled staff was putting this in danger, he said. Most municipalities and metros are running with very few qualified engineers – Nelson Mandela Bay recently lost its last one, when it should have 50 – and this is a serious threat. "We need to be active citizens and build a capable state with sufficiently qualified people under active leadership, or we must lose hope," he said.
He also said the thinking about water needed to change. Where now it is a single department and a sub-sector of the economy, it needed to become prevalent in all thinking because water is the base of the whole economy, he said.
Seef Redemeyer, chief engineer at national water resource planning in the Department of Water Affairs, said Gauteng had always got its water by throwing money and infrastructure at the problem. This has seen the city relying on pipelines stretching all the way to Lesotho for its livelihood.
But now this infrastructure was decaying and the sources of water were decreasing. The department therefore had to spend even more money on sources like desalination to ensure Gauteng, and the other big metros, had water. "The bottom line is we have the plan, but the implementation is crucial. And if we don't implement, we have a problem," he said.
Andries Meyer, Sasol manager of sustainable water, said it was critical for private companies and government to work together to avert a crisis. "Gauteng will run dry if we do not work across sectors," he said.
With local municipalities losing anywhere near half of their water in leakages – infrastructure can be a century old and does not get maintained – there was a big opportunity for companies to help, he said. Especially since they had the expertise to do so and municipalities struggle to attract engineers. The company is doing this kind of a project in Sebokeng, near its refineries, and this has led to more water being saved than Sasol uses in a year. And these are the kinds of partnerships that are needed, he said.
Christine Colvin, senior manager for freshwater programmes at the WWF, said the proper treatment of acid mine drainage would make or break Gauteng's water future. The current plan will see the water treated to a level where it will be released into the Vaal River system with high salt levels. This will require fresh water to be released from the Vaal dam to dilute the water, wasting scarce clean water, she said.
"We need to make sure we avoid these things in the future. At the moment we have piecemeal planning for the mining sector, and we need to change that to a more strategic view so we don't have these failures again," she said.
If the current piecemeal continued it would lead to mines endangering the areas where Gauteng's water comes from. "We are still heading off in a direction for new mining that does not acknowledge the problems of the past, and it will be up to the taxpayers to pick up the cost," she said .
Dr Anthony Turton, a private water expert, said South Africa's economy had been built on externalising all the costs of the mining industry. But now these costs – environmental, social and water damage – were coming home and future industry and taxpayers were going to have to include these costs in everything they did.
With many of the water catchment areas ruined by mining, the country would have to start recycling all of its water if it was to survive, he said. This was particularly important for Gauteng, which sits on the continental divide so all its water flows away and any new water has to be brought uphill.
"There are three numbers that we need to think about; 48-billion cubic metres, which is the total rainfall for the country every year, 38-billion cubic metres, which is the total amount of water available in our dams and 63-billion cubic metres which is what our water demand will be by 2035," he said.
To solve this the country would have to recycle all its water 1.6 times, he said. "This is not a crisis, but we need to draw on an enormous amount of ingenuity to create the solutions we know are there," he said.
The supply of water should also be split. At the moment water that is fit to drink is supplied to most users, which is very expensive. Instead clean water should be given to households and those who need it to drink, while untreated water can be given to industry.
Helgard Muller, chief director of water services at water affairs, said the department wants there to be no-go areas for mining, and was working with the department of mineral resources to create these.
Gauteng was only in danger if the current plans were not implemented properly. "Water is different from Eskom because there isn't a national grid where you suddenly have no power. Water will not be like that, but all of us will gradually suffer if we do not work on these issues," he said.
A farmer from Nkandla said people in his area do not have water for animals or for consumption, because their water is being sent to Gauteng. "When are rural communities going to have access to their own water? This is not a luxury, it is a basic need and we do not have a say in what happens to our water," he said.
And Motsepe Matlala, president of the National African Farmers Union, said many rural farmers did not have access to water, even if they lived next to a dam. This was because the water had been allocated to bigger farmers or elsewhere, and they had had no access to the process of allocating the water.
He warned that food security was becoming a serious problem as farmers were squeezed out. "Our food security margin was around 120% in 1995 and now it is nearly 85%," he said. The water being sent to Gauteng needed to benefit people in the areas that the water is coming from, he said.
Rademeyer said that 11 of the 19 water management sectors that the country is split into were under stress. This meant that water had to be taken from other areas to supply these. The immediate problem for Gauteng was that somewhere around 2015 the water system was going to go into deficit, and there would be no respite until the next phase of the Lesotho Highlands scheme came online in 2020.