Parched South Africa is anxiously awaiting La Niña’s expected floodwaters. But we still need a radical shift in how we use water.
South Africa is the 30th-driest country in the world* and is officially classed as semiarid, which means that, even during a good year, water resources are stretched. But when regular droughts come along – every decade or two – the whole water system goes into crisis.
Seven big dams have been built around Lesotho to collect the rain that falls on the 3 000m-high mountains. Deep and narrow, the dams lose less water to evaporation and ensure there is enough water stored for two years of drought.
This drought started two years ago. It is entering its third year. Eight of the country’s nine provinces have been declared drought disaster areas.
Two entire planting seasons have passed, with the national maize harvest dropping by half, from 14‑million tonnes to just over seven million tonnes. Tens of thousands of cattle have died. Dam levels are down – the Vaal Dam is only 30% full. That’s a problem for Gauteng because the Vaal supplies the region with water.
The South African Weather Service is predicting an end to the drought. El Niño – a phenomenon that warms the Pacific Ocean and leads to drought in the southern hemisphere – has tailed off. Nasa says there is a 60% chance it will be followed by its wetter sibling, La Niña. We should know by October 10 (previously Kruger Day) – the date by which the first drops are said to have normally started to soften the soil – whether the rains will come.
This is why Rand Water said it has to restrict water supply to the entities it supplies, such as Johannesburg Water. That utility has to drop water use by 15% immediately or face water cuts. To get there, it has extended the existing water restrictions. Now, households using upwards of 40 000 litres of water a month will be paying 30% more for their excess. The Constitution mandates that homes get 6 000 litres free a month. Hosepipe bans are also being extended, so cars cannot be washed by hose and gardens cannot be watered during the day.
But the utility and the country are faced with two fundamental problems when it comes to managing water: South Africa’s water use has grown at a faster pace than its infrastructure, and people use water as though they are living in a water-rich country.
Johannesburg Water says 40% of its water is used on lawns. This is why green lawns and thirsty, alien trees proliferate in a country where natural vegetation rarely grows higher than a person’s shoulder.
Indigenous vegetation, such as the shrub Erythrina zeyheri, is hardy and uses very little water. That’s why this so-called ploughbreaker does most of its growing underground, avoiding evaporation and only sucking in a few cupfuls of water every week.
As a result of the water crisis, conversations usually kept to water-sector listservs and critical thinking forums are being had in public. These are calling on the country to adapt to its water reality – including bans on selling invasive plants at nurseries – and to make incremental changes to reduce illogical water use.
That does not let the government off the hook. It struggles to keep its infrastructure development at the same pace as population growth. Big dams such as Limpopo’s De Hoop are coming online almost a decade behind schedule.
As for Gauteng, its future is in the balance as a result of what is reportedly political interference in the construction of the next phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme. This should be releasing water into the Vaal Dam by next year, but will only come online in 2023.
The water department’s reconciliation scenarios – done for each catchment – show Gauteng will need 17% more water than it has. Water experts, such as former water director general Mike Muller, say this will leave the region in a precarious position. Another drought will mean the dams run dry and that is that: no water.
The absolute nature of this scenario requires a radical shift in thinking and behaviour about how people use water in a country that has very little. The water restrictions are a chance to highlight that reality.
We may be left high and dry
The future could very well look like the recent past. Last year, electric pumps that feed Johannesburg’s water reservoirs stopped working. The water stopped flowing uphill and the city’s reservoirs ran dry. Water outages ensued. Queues for water proliferated.
That shouldn’t happen this year – if it rains in the next few months and if the city can immediately reduce its water consumption by 15%.
Level two water restrictions have been intensified and people will be fined for watering their gardens during the day (when most of the water evaporates anyway). Households that use a lot of water will pay more for that privilege – those using 40 000 litres a month will be paying 30% more on their monthly accounts.
Similar restrictions have been implemented across the country. The smaller the town, the more severe the restrictions. Data from the Water Research Commission shows that 35% of water is lost from leaks, or from people using water and not paying. Towns such as Kroonstad have already run out of municipal water. The water affairs department has rolled out its emergency plan for cities along the coast, investigating building desalination plants that previously used to be part of the “too expensive” scenario.
If it rains, these responses should prove to have been enough. But future climate change scenarios mean this type of national water crisis will be normal. Government models show that most of the country will get more parched. The Karoo will stretch towards Johannesburg. The cold fronts that feed Cape Town’s winter rainfall will recede further south and miss landfall.
An already dry country will only get drier. But its population will continue to grow, as will demands from industry. This seems like an intractable situation, unless the hard decisions are made.
*Fact checking organisation Africa Check tested the statement that South Africa is the 30th driest country in the world – a statement taken from the Department of Water and Sanitation – and found that it was the 39th driest in 2014.