Water-shedding will make load-shedding seem like a jol

NEWS ANALYSIS

Water-shedding is inevitable because the business case for new water infrastructure doesn’t add up.

Your house gets 6 000 litres of free water each month. That’s the equivalent of six fully laden bakkies delivering water to your home each month.

With an average national use of nearly 300 litres of water a person a day, that’s 9 000 litres each a month (or nine bakkies loaded with water).

In Gauteng, those bakkies have to travel nearly 500km from Lesotho, where one end of the province’s water catchment starts.

A house might pay R200 for what it uses beyond the free allowance. And 58% of households say that they don’t pay for water, according to Statistics South Africa.

Between a quarter and half of all water in municipalities leaks out of pipelines, according to the Water Research Commission.

In big cities, new homes and industrial areas are now being built with contributions from developers towards the cost of water storage towers, treatment plants and pipelines. In small cities and towns, new development goes ahead without upgrades. The result is water shortages and sewage flowing into people’s yards and into rivers.

Obsolete infrastructure

In all cities and towns, the infrastructure is inadequate for the growing population. In Sandton, for example, the main water pipeline was built to supply buildings no higher than four storeys. In Polokwane, the municipality is looking for funds to replace pipelines made from asbestos.

Treasury tries to top up this infrastructure gap from several pots of money, such as the Municipal Infrastructure Grant and the Equitable Share. These help municipalities to build new infrastructure so that they can provide services to people who cannot afford them.

The problem is that those pots of money attract thieves. South Africa’s water sector has attracted a lot of thieves.


Also, the country has spent money to build water infrastructure so that 95% of the population has water, but a third of that infrastructure doesn’t work. That equates to 20-million people left without regular, clean running water.

All of this is a problem of “the last mile” — getting water from reservoirs to people’s homes.

Now the problem is to find more sources of water to fill those reservoirs as demand grows. Yet climate change is resulting in shifting rainfall patterns and an increasing number of severe droughts.

In Cape Town, the invasive species that choke that city’s tiny 800km2 water catchment have to be cut down. In Durban, it means trying to convince people to drink water that has passed through a sewage treatment plant.

In Gauteng, it means building a new dam in Lesotho. Gauteng is supplied by a network of 14 dams, running across four provinces and two countries. Some of this water has to be pumped over the Drakensberg from KwaZulu-Natal and into the Vaal River system.

Right now, Rand Water is withdrawing more water than it is allowed from the Vaal.

The new dam — Polihali in Lesotho — would give the province more water.

The population is predicted to grow from 14-million to 19-million in the next decade, and when an El Niño or drought are forecast, the province will not have enough water. Utilities such as Joburg Water will have to start water-shedding.

Polihali dam

Polihali will cost at least R25-billion to build. Dams are also notorious for running late and over budget. The utility building it — the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority — was set up in the 1990s for the first phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. Its core job is to raise enough money from investors to build water infrastructure. For this, it needs to make enough money from selling water to be an attractive investment.

But the water and sanitation department owes the authority R1.5-billion, and has owed it as much as R3-billion in unpaid water bills in recent years. The department in turn is owed upwards of R10-billion from municipalities. And those municipalities are owed money by residents and industry.

Supplied water is too cheap. A litre bottle of water in a supermarket is R10, whereas 1 000 litres to your house costs just R50.

The entire value chain for water doesn’t work. People working on Polihali dam say they cannot make a business case for people to invest in the dam, or in any large water infrastructure.

Already delayed by eight years thanks to the interference of former water minister Nomvula Mokonyane, the dam has to break ground next year so it can be ready in 2026.

Without that business case, Gauteng won’t get its dam.

This story is just one example of the economics of water not working. The crisis that results already grips rural areas.

It’s going to become a national problem that will make Eskom’s load-shedding look tame by comparison.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
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