Urbanisation and plugging water losses

Water scarcity index. (Water Resources Institute)

Water scarcity index. (Water Resources Institute)

Water scarcity is becoming one of the most pertinent risks threatening societal and economic development globally. The pressing scarcity of water, concerns over water quality and the potential impact of climate change, all create a relatively uncertain environment.

According to the World Resources Institute, South Africa is currently characterised as a water-stressed country, because there is less than 1 000 cubic metres of available fresh water per person. The department of water affairs reports that this makes South Africa the 30th most water-scarce country in the world.

South Africa has also undergone extensive urbanisation over the past two decades and will continue to do so. In 1990, half the South African population resided in urban areas. The urban population has since grown by 68%, amounting to 32.1-million people (62% of the total population). As the economy continues to develop, this trend is expected to continue. “As people move into more densely populated areas, the demand for water increases,” says Adronicca Masemola, head of public sector for KPMG in South Africa.

“The resultant additional pressure on water infrastructure necessitates increased levels of maintenance, which places significant pressure on the budgets of cities and provinces.”

Water losses in South Africa

Currently, South Africa loses in excess of 36% of its water every year, a total of 480.9 gigalitres, the equivalent of 2.5 Hartbeespoort dams or 192 392 Olympic-size swimming pools. This is classified as non-revenue water (because municipalities cannot charge consumers for its usage) and is the direct result of broken or leaking pipes. South Africa’s level of non-revenue water is about the same as the global average of 36.6%.

However, this figure is does not provide an accurate view of the levels of water loss at municipal level. There is disparity between municipalities, with the metropolitan municipalities averaging 34.3% and the smaller, rural municipalities averaging 72.5%. The rate also compares well to other developing countries, though it is higher than the recorded rate for developed countries. Most water is lost in urban municipalities due to the higher population density, and water demand from industry, both of which are typical of the urban setting.

Rural municipalities, on the other hand, service a smaller share of the population. However, they do have a higher rate of non-revenue water because the ability to recover costs is lower.

“Although a number of municipalities have made good strides in addressing the issue, a research report compiled by the Water Research Council in 2012 estimates that non-revenue water in South Africa amounts to R7.2-billion every year.

“To reduce the levels of non-revenue water, a number of key challenges must be addressed. These include monitoring, billing and maintenance,” says Masemola.

“The implementation of effective systems to monitor water use at municipal level is crucial,” she says. “Many municipalities do not monitor their use of water. Introducing monitoring is the first step that will enable comprehensive measurement of the extent of non-revenue water.”

In addition, Masemola says that accurate billing systems and metering will enhance the ability of municipalities to recover costs. “These systems also enable more effective water demand management as consumers can directly link their water consumption to the cost of water,” she explains.

To maintain water infrastructure more effectively, maintenance backlogs need to be addressed and assets must be managed in a more comprehensive and integrated manner. “This will enable a reduction in physical water losses and potentially extend the useful life of such assets,” says Masemola.

“While reducing non-revenue water in the country is not impossible, unique and innovative solutions will be needed to address the myriad challenges in the South African water sector. “We believe that these challenges are most effectively addressed by combining technical, commercial and management skills, together with an understanding of the industry,” she says.

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