Jo’burg’s taps might also run dry

Thirsty times: Gauteng’s reservoir dams, meant to be used only in cases of emergency, were recently tapped for water (South African Tourism)

Thirsty times: Gauteng’s reservoir dams, meant to be used only in cases of emergency, were recently tapped for water (South African Tourism)

It may be bucketing down, but Gauteng will remain water-insecure until 2025 and it may only be a matter of time until Johannesburg residents face water restrictions again.

This stern warning comes from water expert Anthony Turton.

Turton, a professor at the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of Free State, said major threats to Johannesburg’s water security include the delay of phase two of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project — an important source of water for the city and Gauteng — and the deterioration of the city’s water infrastructure.

Unless the City of Johannesburg urgently replaces and maintains its aging infrastructure, dry taps could become a reality.

Nico de Jager, the member of Johannesburg’s mayoral council responsible for infrastructure development, said that if Johannesburg were to experience a drought, the impact would be greater than for Cape Town because the city does not have the option of desalination.

“We would be in deep trouble and that is why we urge residents to use water sparingly. The City of Johannesburg is currently facing at least a R5.8‑billion infrastructure backlog and if this is not sorted out in the next 10 years, it will escalate to R12.6‑billion, as most of our infrastructure has outlived its lifespan,” said De Jager.

The city does not have the capacity to solve its problems alone because it depends on other parties for its water.

Department of water affairs spokesperson Sputnik Ratau said: “Generally Gauteng, and Johannesburg in particular, receives its water supply from the Integrated Vaal River System, consisting of 14 dams.” He added that most of the city’s water supply comes from the Vaal Dam, with the remaining 21% sourced from the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. The delay of the project critically affects Jo’burg’s water security until it is completed in 2025.

Gauteng’s largest metro suffered water supply shortages last year when Vaal Dam levels reached a low of 25% during a drought during which level two water restrictions were imposed on Jo’burg and other municipalities.

These included prohibiting citizens from watering their gardens between 6am and 6pm, and a ban on washing cars and pavements with hosepipes.
The water department later relaxed the restrictions to level one after rainfall early this year offered some relief.

Johannesburg Water communications manager Isaac Dhludlu said the entity expects the restrictions to be lifted completely, because more rainfall is likely early next year.

Ratau said that in cases of desperate need — such as that experienced in October and November when the Vaal Dam was only at 25% to 26% of capacity — it is necessary to discharge water from the Sterkfontein Dam near Harrismith.

Yet, Gauteng’s head of water and sanitation, Sibusiso Mthembu, said the recent rainfalls should not lull residents into letting their guard down and believing they are water secure.

“In fact, during this time, we should double our efforts to conserve as much water as possible. With the weather conditions being so unpredictable to the point of even defying forecasts, we should make saving water our daily priority. We should not be caught unprepared,” said Mthembu.

Media reports allege that Cape Town’s water crisis has been exacerbated by the mismatch between its water supply and its consumption levels.

This illustrates that the City of Johannesburg should make provision for additional water supply rather than relying on citizens to use water sparingly. If the City does not urgently increase its water supply, residents may soon not have enough water to drink, cook or flush their toilets.

Cape Town is on level five restrictions, capping water usage for domestic users at 20 kilolitres a month.

Turton pointed to the recent incident of a burst pipe buried in solid waste in Sandton, Johannesburg, as an example of the city’s aging infrastructure.

The incident left residents in many of the city’s northern suburbs without water for at least a week. Power utility Eskom was one of the companies in the area forced to ask staff at its Fourways headquarters to work from other offices as a result of the water outage.

Responding to the disaster, Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba said that fixing water infrastructure, whose maintenance had been neglected for decades, was “still a high mountain to climb”.

A recent auditor general report on water infrastructure noted that “the impact of municipalities not having a dedicated operations and management team leads to infrastructure deteriorating faster than intended and, in turn, affects regular delivery of services to the community”.

But Dhludlu said Johannesburg Water had implemented a pipe replacement project over the past five years, and had replaced 499km of water pipes by the end of June. It plans to replace a further 633km of pipes, to reduce the frequency of burst pipes and minimise water loss.

The municipal entity, through its water pressure management programme, has also rolled out more than 500 pressure-reducing valves in its systems to minimise pipe bursts. It has also allocated R10‑million to implement new pressure management areas, said Dhludlu.

A report published by the South African Institution of Civil Engineering said South Africa’s infrastructure is a risk to its citizens’ health and safety. It graded the country’s levels of maintenance and refurbishment at a disappointing D+, one level above what is considered to be a state of total disrepair or failure.

The report suggests the country’s decaying infrastructure is concomitant with an ongoing and unchanged norm of poor maintenance and insufficient engineering capacity in the public sector.

The report grades infrastructure levels on a five-point scale from A to E. An A grade would mean infrastructure is capable of coping with extreme events such as droughts.

Aging infrastructure is not the only reason Johannesburg may run out if water if nothing is done in the short term. With about 45 000 leaks a year, the city records the highest leak rate in Gauteng municipalities. Leaks account for almost 32.9% of the city’s water use, according to a joint report by the Strategic Water Partners South Africa and the department of water and sanitation in 2015 on the status of water loss around the country. This is in spite of Johannesburg Water increasing its efforts to identify leaks with customer interface tools and technology.

The National Development Plan targets a 15% reduction in water demand in urban areas by 2030. Although the government has set these targets, according to the water loss report, Gauteng is yet to reduce its demand, despite improvements in increasing its water efficiency.

Alleged corruption in the national water and sanitation department is cited by experts as another factor adding to the danger of potential water shortages in Johannesburg.

Media reports allege that Water Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane played a role in the R26‑billion maladministration of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project that is being investigated by public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane.

Mokonyane has reportedly stalled the implementation of the second leg of the project by at least three years. It was also alleged that the minister planned to use the project to enrich friends after claiming that it had initially excluded previously disadvantaged groups.

But Mokonyane has dismissed the claims as baseless. “This was a transformation imperative of both governments in Lesotho and South Africa,” she said at the time.

The project, initiated 13 years ago, will cost South African taxpayers an additional R2‑billion before its expected completion in 2025.

But Ratau said the current delay is relative, as with any other building project.

“In this instance, there was also a deliberate intention to bring in up-and-coming Basotho and South African companies — not forgetting the change of government in Lesotho, with its own dynamics,” he said.

“The deadline, as we see it, is the most practical that the Lesotho Highlands Development Agency can work towards.”

Thulebona Mhlanga is an Adamela Trust trainee financial reporter at the Mail & Guardian

​Thulebona Mhlanga

​Thulebona Mhlanga

Thulebona Mhlanga is financial trainee journalist  at the Mail & Guardian, currently enrolled for a masters in politics at the University of Johannesburg. In addition to her fervent interest in business writing, reading and educating others around issues of financial literacy, she volunteers her time to projects assisting women and promoting social justice.  Read more from ​Thulebona Mhlanga

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