/ 5 September 2016

Johannesburg Water implements heavy water restrictions, urges residents to be frugal

Harsh reality: The Southern African Development Community is dependent on South Africa for 40% of its maize
Harsh reality: The Southern African Development Community is dependent on South Africa for 40% of its maize

Spring comes with the promise of rain, but after two years of drought there still isn’t enough water to go around.

That reality has seen most of the water utilities across South Africa up their water restrictions. Eight of the nine provinces have declared drought disasters. Gauteng, for its part, has been incrementally increasing the restrictions its cities place on households for water use.

But Rand Water says the Vaal River system had dropped below the 60% threshold – the point at which the next level of alarm has to be raised. It has told its clients – in this case Johannesburg Water – that they need to immediately drop their water consumption by 15% to avoid water shortages.

If that happens, the city will have to start turning off water to certain parts of the city so that it can build up reservoir capacity. This is what happened earlier this year, when power failures left reservoirs empty and the city was forced to cut off supply while it built up storage.

This is why Johannesburg Water has implemented Level 2 water restrictions. Those means residents may not water or irrigate their gardens between 6am and 6pm – because this water just evaporates – and residents may not use municipal water to fill their pools, or hosepipes to wash cars or do things such as hose down paved areas.

Policing that is difficult, and the utility said it is relying on people contacting it with complaints about households that break the rules.

At the same time, Johannesburg Water is increasing the price households pay for using more water each month. Water legislation says a home gets 6 000-litres of free water a month. Beyond that, the price is incrementally increased.

Under Level 2 restrictions, homes that use between 20 000 and 30 000-litres of water a month will pay 10% more on their water bills. Those that use 40 000-litres a month will be paying 30% more.

The utility said this should help reduce water use.

But it does not solve the long-term problem. South Africa has gone through two seasons of drought, thanks to the emergence of El Nino conditions in the Pacific Ocean. This regular phenomenon creates a giant bubble of warmer water in that ocean, and leads to drought in the Southern Hemisphere.

Given that this is a regular occurrence, South Africa has engineered resilience around it. Massive dams around Lesotho – and the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme in that country – collect water during the seasons of plenty so that there is a reserve when there is a drought. This gives what is already the 30th driest country in the world a buffer, allowing crops to be irrigated along the Vaal River system and communities to keep drawing on water.

It is thanks to these feats of engineering – and the ability to send water some 400km from Lesotho to Gauteng – that Johannesburg can be one of only two major cities in the world not built on a big river (Birmingham in the United Kingdom is the other).

But many of these dams are old and the whole system was built for a much smaller population. Gauteng has since grown. Climate change projections also show that the area will have to learn to live with less water this century. A new phase of the Highlands Scheme is half a decade behind schedule, with reports that political interference has slowed down its construction. Its expected opening is now around 2023.

That is a problem, according to the national water department’s own water projections. Gauteng is projected to exceed its supply of water before 2020. That means there won’t be enough water, even in years when there is no drought, until the scheme is finished.

So water restrictions are here for the short-term, until La Nina’s projected rains start to fall. That phenomenon does the reverse of La Nina. But water restrictions will be a future reality, with South Africa having to live within its water means.