/ 2 October 2014

Why Johannesburg’s taps ran dry

Gauteng residents that ran out of water collected the precious fluid from a tanker this week.
Gauteng residents collecting water from a tanker. File photo

Gauteng’s water crisis was its “Fukushima moment”. Water officials used the term this week to liken the series of unconnected events involving failures at two different power and pump stations that led to the province’s worst water crisis in 110 years to the 2011 nuclear crisis in Japan, which was precipitated by a catastrophic tsunami.

But people in the sector generally agree that, if lessons are learnt, a similar crisis should not happen again.

On September 15, the transformer supplying power to the Eikenhof pumping station in southern Johannesburg failed owing to an electrical fault. The standby transformer also failed. City Power said it had been giving problems since its installation last year.

Taps then started to run dry in western Johannesburg. Six days later, the cables supplying Alrode power station, also to the south, were stolen. This caused the Palmiet pumping station to stop supplying water to reservoirs. Water supply to parts of eastern Johannesburg then ran out. But, rather than immediately telling people that the reservoirs were running out of water, the various government water entities chose to say nothing until the water actually did run out.

Nomvula Mokonyane, the water minister and former Gauteng premier, first called Rand Water to task, then Johannesburg Water. She eventually laid the blame on City Power for the failures.

It was a “technical glitch”, she said, and denied there was a crisis. People who had been without water for two weeks disagreed.

Lack of contingency planning
People in the water sector, who spoke to the Mail & Guardian anonymously, said there had been a clear lack of contingency planning. Mokonyane has demanded that municipalities in the province draw up a 10-year plan to avoid a repeat.

But the difficulty is that, because Johannesburg is located so far from a water source, water has to be piped to the city. Jo’burg falls on a continental divide, so rain that falls north of the CBD flows to the Limpopo River in the north, and rain that falls south of the divide heads towards the Vaal River.

The city’s water has to be pumped up an incline and that uses tremendous amounts of power. A big pump station requires 700MW of guaranteed constant capacity. Rand Water spends R1.3-billion a year on energy to pump water. To supply the province, the water department pipes water, mainly from Lesotho, to the Vaal Dam 400km away. It is then sold to Rand Water, which treats the water to bring it up to drinking quality standard. It is then sold to utilities such as Johannesburg Water.

Rand Water buys it for R2 per 1?000 litres and sells it for R5 per 1?000 litres to Johannesburg Water, which sells it on to homes at an average price of R12 per 1?000 litres. But so much water is lost in transmission, and to people who do not pay for it, that R5 of that income has to cover the loss. This means the utility has to operate and build infrastructure on a R2 margin for every 1?000 litres it sells. Water prices in Johannesburg will increase by R4 per 1?000 litres in the city by 2017.

The 2013 auditor general report on Johannesburg Water said 30% of the city’s water is lost through leaks and by people not paying for it, which costs R800-million a year.

Rand Water’s annual plans show that it spends R1.7-billion on infrastructure annually. The total value of the utilities’ network is R3-billion. In accounting terms, these lose value every year that they are used. When they finish their life span – usually within 40 years – their value is zero.

Deteriorating infrastructure
The report said the network is deteriorating by R300-million a year, whereas just R195-million a year is spent on capital infrastructure.

A senior water planning official said Gauteng’s infrastructure was generally well maintained, but much of it was aging. Some of the pipes in the older neighbourhoods were half a century old and many had crumbled and were leaking.

Billing problems meant a large number of people did not know how much water they were actually using and so might be unaware of leaks in their pipes, said the planning official.

Another official said a “failure in education” meant people did not value water. “When you turn a tap [on] you are paying R12 per tonne of water.” Bottled water sold in shops costs the same for just one litre.

“Just think about the effort that goes into getting water to your tap, and how little you are actually paying [for it].”

Johannesburg Water had not responded to repeated requests for comment on this story by the time of going to print.