Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Water crisis: Heels drag while taps run dry


On this at least there is consensus: South Africa faces a thirsty future – even if there is still disagreement on the important details, such as just how bad the situation is right now and when it will be appropriate to call it a crisis.

From the vantage point of early 2015 the consensus seems laughably obvious, with every study and statistic and projection in agreement and anecdotes of daily struggles too numerous to ignore.

Yet it was a hard-won consensus; as recently as 2012 those predicting trouble could still have flipped a coin to calculate the odds of being listened to versus being branded alarmist and dismissed. Only in the past two years have scientists across different disciplines and technocrats across different levels of government come to agree – with notable political exceptions (see below) – that trouble is looming. What was recently deemed alarmist has become simple fact.

But agreement is not action and those same scientists and technocrats now find themselves watching, increasingly aghast, as water follows the same course as electricity did between 1998, when consensus about a looming crisis was reached, and 2008, when the lights actually went out for the first time.

Seven years later there is still no security of electricity supply. And, relative to water, electricity is not a particularly hard problem to solve.

On the other hand, despite the life-or-death nature of water problems, they do not capture the imagination as electricity does. Electricity goes out all at once, but water dries up by dribs and drabs as availability peters off or quality slowly deteriorates until it is not fit for human consumption.

Between 1998 and 2004 new sources of electricity were not considered because of a controversial, and eventually scrapped, plan to privatise the sector. That policy reversal was itself partially reversed when it came to renewable energy. Much the same debate continues about municipal water supply, with talk of “public-private partnerships” rather than “privatisation”.

With electricity running short, a great deal of effort and money was put into attempts to reduce demand from major industrial users and ordinary citizens through education, exhortation and, eventually, downright pleading. With water the equivalent effort is reducing part of the estimated one-third of all treated water that is lost through leaks or is not paid for. But that task has proven harder and more expensive than initially thought, and flamboyant promises to halve losses by 2014 have been quietly forgotten.

Too cheap
Circa 1998 electricity was too cheap to fund new supplies or bring in private suppliers, and the low price encouraged spendthrift use. Eskom argues it is still too cheap, despite massive price hikes that were politically unpopular and economically destructive. Today the price of water is below the cost of supply.

Last year the water affairs department said municipalities owe more than R2-billion for water sold to them, and the Water Research Commission said R11-billion in revenue is lost annually because of leaks and users not paying their dues. Eskom, too, is owed enormous amounts by municipalities and a problem with illegal connections. To date the utility has not been able to collect debt effectively or contain theft.

Water prices have never reflected costs because keeping the price low encouraged agriculture and industry, and kept the lid on the cost of living. To get around the implications, the water department established the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority to finance big projects. This independent vehicle could get cheap loans because it had a functional business model and was not undermined by municipalities, said a senior water affairs official. This is the authority working on the Lesotho Highlands water project and acid mine drainage.

“We can raise funds for big projects that pay back. But for maintaining infrastructure and building regional dams the financial model just does not work at the price we are charging for water,” said the official.

A case in point is the newly completed De Hoop Dam in Limpopo. It was built at a cost of about R5-billion to grow local mining ventures and bring water to a dry region. “The mines were supposed to pay for half of the construction costs in a public-private partnership, but they skipped out on the promise,” the official said. They will, however, pay for water as consumers. “The rest of water users will probably not pay for water, so what does that do to the books?”

The options for new water are much more expensive than the current cost of water. Water affairs figures show that recycling water is double the cost of sourcing water from dams, and water from desalination plants costs five times more.

All of this leaves, by the 2014 estimate of Water Minister Nomvula Mokonyane, a R670-billion hole where the money should be to provide water over the next 10 years. That number is up by R100-billion since her predecessor’s estimate, two years before. The money is yet to be forthcoming and the longer we wait, the more expensive it will be.

The political doublespeak of water access

Two consecutive water ministers have agreed, and Parliament has acknowledged, that whether South Africa faces a water crisis is a matter of semantics or perhaps timing. But right at the top the political establishment is still clinging to a different – and far more positive – narrative.

In his 2014 State of the Nation address President Jacob Zuma said that 95% of South Africans have “access to water”, a figure that subsequently showed up on ANC election posters. Zuma hailed it as a great accomplishment, given that apartheid gave priority to white people and industry. Technically the figure may be defendable, but not by much.

“Access” requires that citizens have a water system in their area of residence – but does not mean water needs to come out of the taps consistently or in drinkable form.

The wiggle room, however, is reducing. In 2013, the Pretoria high court, ruling on demands from people in the Mpumalanga town of Carolina for sufficient water provision, said water had to be a maximum of 200m away from people’s houses and consistently available, and that each person should have access to 25 litres a day for free. That is a detailed interpretation of a more general constitutional guarantee.

The water department has never directly contradicted Zuma and the ANC’s claim. But in response to Mail & Guardian questions it said that “reliable services are in the order of 65% nationally”. That equates to five million households, or nearly 20-million people, who do not have regular flowing water – far more than the 2.6-million people the 95% figure would suggest.

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Sarah Wild
Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didnt work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africas Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards.
Phillip De Wet
Guest Author
Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

Basic web lessons for South Africa: Government hacks point to...

Recent cyberattacks at the department of justice and the space agency highlight the extent of our naïveté

If the inflation-driving supply strain in the US lasts, it...

In South Africa, a strong trade surplus, buoyed by robust commodity prices, will cushion our economy against pressure arising from US policy

More top stories

The sugar tax is working. Experts say we should double...

The financial and public health cost of diabetes, as well as diabetes-related blindness and kidney failures, is being overlooked, health advocates say

Coups are always a bad idea – even the popular...

Why are coups happening more frequently? The most significant trend is the deepening democratic deficit across many African countries, and a corresponding decline in effective enforcement of democratic norms

Almost two million voters register for local elections

Young people make use of online portal and women account for more than half of the total registered

Free State regions cry foul after dissolution by interim provincial...

Regional ANC leaders have asked Duarte to intervene after the interim provincial committee resolved to dissolve their branches ahead of local government elections

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…