The good news: there will definitely not be national “water-shedding”. That’s mainly because there is no “water Eskom” on which we all depend. But also, unlike electricity, water supplies cannot simply be switched on and off.
The bad news: water is complicated and, to keep it running reliably, we need to understand where it comes from and who is responsible for it. Then we must help them. Water is everybody’s business.
Is water-shedding next? After a spell of hot, dry, early summer weather, that’s the question on everybody’s lips. Farmers are already suffering and the South African Weather Service’s warning of an El Niño event has fuelled fears that the big drought has begun.
Confusion reigned recently in Gauteng when Rand Water called for water restrictions, reportedly because dam levels were dropping. Johannesburg Water tried to explain that the real problem was less dramatic: suburban reservoir levels were falling as everyone desperately watered their gardens.
Such intense interest in and subsequent confusion about water is nothing new. And here, the electricity comparison is unhelpful. Eskom generates and transports most of our electricity; from municipal substations it goes to households.
Water is more complicated. Depending on your beliefs, rain is either a gift from God or nature. It falls unpredictably and then flows into rivers, seeps into the ground or just evaporates back into the sky. But water only becomes available for our use if we do some work. Dams are built on rivers, to store water and release it downstream when needed. It is pumped from rivers or boreholes to treatment works, and from there to reservoirs to feed communities’ water supply systems.
A dam may have been built by the national water department, a municipality or even a water users’ association such as a farmers’ collective.
Water treatment and transport is undertaken by regional water boards in Gauteng, eThekwini, Msunduzi and Ballito, Mangaung and Polokwane. This is done by the municipality in Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Bay. In most cases, it is then distributed to households by municipalities.
This complexity ensures that no one organisational failure can shut down South Africa’s water supply. But monitoring the performance of the multitude of organisations involved is a tiring and often dispiriting business. As a result, water gets nothing like the oversight that electricity has “enjoyed”.
So, what questions should we be asking about our water?
Start at home. Do you get a monthly bill from your municipality? Does the tariff go up with your consumption? Johannesburg Water provides 10 kilolitres of free water a month; the next “block” costs R6.80 a kilolitre – that’s a bakkie load of five big drums. But use too much and you will very quickly be paying four times more at R28.08 a kilolitre.
This “stepped tariff” ensures that no one goes without water because they cannot pay for it. It also discourages households from using too much – but if they do use that much, R28 a kilolitre will pay for a new dam to increase supplies.
Will your municipality still provide water next year? If it uses its water revenue to maintain and expand its network, it should. But if the municipality does not monitor and control the water people consume, overuse is likely. This has already caused regular shortages in Limpopo, North West and Mpumalanga.
Now the questions get difficult. Where will the municipality find the water to fill its reservoirs? It should have a water services development plan setting out how many people are to be supplied, how much water they will need, where it is going to come from and how the infrastructure and running costs will be paid for.
Here things begin to fall down. Most smaller municipalities have plans that are completely unrealistic wish lists. They have little idea of how much additional water they need or where it will come from. New infrastructure may be proposed without any source of funds since what little revenue is collected is not used to improve water supply.
The metropolitan municipalities do better. They normally know how much water they use and how much they will need. They also collect substantial revenues and can fund infrastructure renewal and expansion.
But small or big, all municipalities need a source of water. Gauteng depends on dams on the Vaal river and elsewhere – notably, Lesotho. Planning, building and operating this national infrastructure that serves many communities is the responsibility of the department of water and sanitation. It must estimate how much water can be reliably supplied from rivers whose flow varies from day to day and year to year – hydrology is more complicated than actuarial science, which is why there is a drain of water scientists to the financial sector.
Hydrologists have another critical job. They estimate how long water stored in dams will last during a really bad drought. They aim for 98% reliability, ensuring that supplies fall below target only once every 50 years. Crudely, their job is to tell the rest of us when to panic.
So far this year, although dams in the Vaal system are at 75%, 10% lower than last year, there is still enough to continue as normal. But if drought brings another dry summer and levels fall 10% more, restrictions will be needed. In the Western Cape where, at the end of the rainy season, levels are 20% lower than last year, restrictions will probably be introduced before year-end.
This brings us back to households. How do we restrict water supply? The best solution is to impose limits on water use and charge penalty tariffs to households that use too much – R50 or R100 a kilolitre usually does the trick. But this cannot be done if water is not metered, leading to inevitable and inconvenient supply interruptions.
We should aim to avoid such supply cuts. Instead of opposing water metering, civil society should be encouraging it, to ensure that the burden of any eventual water shortage is shared equitably.
In the mean time, the good news is that it will rain again, we just don’t know exactly when. So here is how we can address our water challenges:
- In the long term, plan how much water we need and where to find it. Infrastructure needs to be built on time – for Gauteng, the next Lesotho dam is already five years late;
- In the medium term, ensure that water boards and municipalities have practical plans to operate, maintain and expand infrastructure;
- In the short term, track how much water we use and what is needed to keep it flowing reliably.
And we should support our municipalities to monitor our water use and tell us when to restrict our use. After all, water is everybody’s business.
Mike Muller is a visiting adjunct professor at the Wits School of Governance, a former water affairs director general and a national planning commissioner who has run a waterworks