Our future is here: Empty taps, dry lands, thirsty power plants



Johannesburg uses 530-million more litres of water than it is allowed to – every single day. And taps and reservoirs in Gauteng, Mpumalanga the Free State and North West are running dry


Cape Town’s water planners took a calculated gamble in 2008. Their data showed that, by 2015, more water would be needed than was available. New dams, or other infrastructure, would have to be built to ensure enough water. But the city thought it could save enough water so that the crunch would be pushed back to 2022. This meant it didn’t have to immediately spend money on infrastructure.

Then came a record drought.

The city’s taps came very close to running dry. Water use per person had to drop to 80 litres a day, a third of the national average.

Gauteng, and the national government, is taking a similar gamble. But this one isn’t calculated.

In 2009, the plan for water use in the Integrated Vaal River System — a network of 14 dams supplying that part of the highveld — said demand for water would exceed supply in roughly a decade. This conclusion echoed that of previous “reconciliation scenarios”, which means planners have known for decades that there would be a water shortage.

These scenarios, created by the national water department, are done for every water catchment area, where water in rivers can be collected in dams. The scenarios project water use and works out when demand will surpass supply, which gives planners a date by which they must have another water source in place.

Because water is crucial to everything else, the planners have to come up with a solution — no matter how expensive.

City in the sky

Getting water to the highveld is difficult. Gauteng is called “the city in the sky”, because it sits at an altitude of about 1 800m. It is unusual in that the province’s cities were not built on or near a major water source. Unusual has created a nightmare for water planners. Just getting water from the Vaal Dam to Johannesburg means it has to be pumped upwards by 300m. This requires electricity. And when electricity is in short supply, the whole water system becomes vulnerable — which is why areas of Gauteng run out of water when the power goes out.

All the cheap solutions to get more water to the Vaal system, and Gauteng, have been exhausted. That’s why, in 1986, negotiations started to dam water in Lesotho — which has a lot of water from rainfall and melting snow — and send it to the Vaal system. Finished a decade later, the Katse Dam now supplies a quarter of the extra water that goes into the Vaal.

Water is also pumped over the Drakensberg from KwaZulu-Natal.

From the Vaal system, water goes to homes and industries in Gauteng, farms and towns in the Free State, North West and Mpumalanga — and to 12 Eskom coal-fired power plants and Sasol’s petrochemical factories.

Nearly half of South Africa’s gross domestic product relies on the Integrated Vaal River System.

New sources of water

In 2009, the planners suggested other ways to increase the supply of water. The most expensive was to desalinate water at the Indian Ocean and pump it up to the highveld — 600km away. This would use massive amounts of electricity, and result in water costing up to 20 times more than it does now.

The most straightforward solution was to build another dam in Lesotho. A feasibility study for that dam — Polihali — was done as far back as 2005. The 2009 plan had anticipated that the dam would have already been built — any later and the water mathematics for supply and demand wouldn’t work.

Polihali was expected to provide as much water as Eskom and Sasol use. It would also buy Gauteng more time, filling the gap between demand and supply until around 2030. Then another plan would be needed.

(John McCann/M&G)

Getting water from Lesotho is the job of the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA), a state entity that falls under the national water department. It is named after the tunnel that brings water from Lesotho to the Ash River in the Free State, just outside Clarens, so it can then flow into the Vaal River.

The authority raises funds for infrastructure in Lesotho, which is run by the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority, which in turn is overseen by the Lesotho Highlands Water Commission. South Africa buys water and Lesotho gets an income and hydroelectricity.

The TCTA makes money by selling water. Its debts are backed by the water department. In a February notice, ratings agency Fitch said the debt didn’t have a rating because it is “explicitly government guaranteed debt”. As a result, “their liabilities would be covered by government if needed”.

Because utilities buy water from the TCTA, it has a guaranteed market. This makes it attractive for investors. Or, rather, it did. If work had started earlier this decade on this next phase of the Lesotho water project, funds would have been raised. But work on Polihali didn’t start on time.

A system broken

Former water minister Nomvula Mokonyane intervened and stopped tenders. This stopped everything. The given reason was that she wanted more black companies to benefit from the multibillion rand Polihali project. But the Mail & Guardian and City Press reported that she intervened to get tenders awarded to contractors she had a vested interest in.

Eventually, in 2017, the first three tenders for parts of the work were advertised. These weren’t for the Polihali Dam itself but rather for a tunnel that would take water from Polihali to Katse Dam, and then on to South Africa. This pushed the completion time of Polihali back to about 2026 — in a best-case scenario.

This delay in building Polihali means the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority has to try to raise funds to build the dam in a completely different economic environment, one that is stressed and struggling. It is finding it difficult to do so. This year the TCTA asked the finance minister to allow it to nearly double its borrowing limit, to R40-billion, next year.

In a notice to the JSE, the TCTA said its request was denied and that it can only borrow R17.7-billion. It went on to say that the limit “is not expected to have a negative impact on the funding [of the next phase of the Lesotho water scheme]”. But it warned that the “lowered borrowing ceiling reduces the TCTA’s ability to manage” if the water scheme becomes more expensive, or if it has to spend more on its other big water projects.

Nobody seems entirely sure that the dam will be built. The water department didn’t respond to questions, despite having two weeks to do so.

That department is a large part of the problem. It is technically bankrupt, destroyed by successive bad ministers. The low point came under Mokonyane, who has been accused of varying levels of corruption —from giving contracts to those she favours to taking Bosasa money, food and other goody bags. Bosasa, which had government contracts, was named in the Zondo inquiry into state capture. Mokonyane has denied all allegations.

In its recent budget vote, the department said it had a R16.4-billion budget. It had an overdraft of nearly R900-million and had clocked up R1.4-billion in unauthorised expenditure and R6.2-billion in irregular expenditure in the last financial year. It also owes service providers R400-million.

It, in turn, is owed about R11-billion by the municipalities it sells water to.

In a report last year on the water shortages, the Gauteng government said the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority could borrow money for new projects “at attractive rates based on the financial undertakings” of the water department. If the department doesn’t pay TCTA for water, “the basis for funding new and existing development could be put at risk”. The TCTA needs to raise about R24-billion for the Polihali Dam.

(John McCann/M&G)

The department has owed the TCTA as much as R1.4-billion in recent years.

Former and current officials in the water department, as well as people in civil society organisations, said there is a very real possibility that the water department will grind to a halt. This possibility, and a potential ratings downgrade next week, means government struggles to borrow money and guarantee loans. This would destroy the financial model that underpins the water sector, and in turn mean investors would not want to fund Polihali Dam.

With 1 000 vacancies and crippled by years of corruption, the department is described as suffering from a lack of “institutional capacity”. Turning this situation around will take a long time. Time that Gauteng doesn’t have.

Things are so desperate that the department does not update reconciliation scenarios. The Vaal system scenario, for example, uses data that is 16 years old and it does not take into account newer climate change projections or population growth. It also has Polihali Dam already in operation. This means planners are guessing where the water is, who is using it and what they need to do to conserve it.

In its budget vote, the water department discussed concerns raised by the portfolio committee on water about “the material uncertainty relating to the going concern, or financial sustainability, of the department”. In other words, it isn’t a given that the department can keep on functioning.

Gauteng’s Day Zero

And this is a problem. Gauteng’s water future depends on Polihali Dam being built. The level of the Vaal Dam has dropped to below 50% of its capacity. The Vaal system is down to 65%. The provinces around it have been hit by a long drought.

Lesotho didn’t get the snowfall and rain this past winter, so Katse Dam is down to 15% of its capacity.

The hotter it is, the more water evaporates from these dams. The hotter it is, the more people use water — hence water shortages throughout Gauteng in recent weeks.

During the drought, Cape Town went down to 80 litres per person a day. On average, people in Gauteng use 297 litres a day — the national average is 230 litres a day.

Gauteng’s population is growing by 400 000 people a year. The province’s blueprint for how to deal with the water crunch — published last year — notes that: “Due to the delays in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project Phase 2 [Polihali Dam], it [saving water] is currently a challenge of particular urgency.”

In the five mega droughts in the past century, Gauteng was able to survive because the Vaal system can store at least three years’ worth of water. The biggest dam, Sterkfontein, holds three billion cubic metres of water — more than any dam in the Vaal system. Tucked into the foothills of the Drakensberg, it is 100m deep.

Sterkfontein, much like Eskom’s diesel-fired power turbines, is the water supply of last resort. It opens the floodgates when the Vaal drops to 20% of its capacity. When that happens, things are desperate. That point could be reached in as little as a year if heavy rains do not fall across the catchment area.

This sets up a long-term problem. The Vaal’s dams are built to get the region through drought. Dams such as Sterkfontein weren’t built to be used all the time. If they are used continuously, there will not be enough water stored to get us through future droughts.

This is why the Polihali Dam is crucial — it would ensure there is enough water during normal seasons, so

that the emergency supply can recharge for when things go wrong.

Rand Water, the utility that takes water from the Vaal system and supplies it to most of Gauteng, has used the recent closure of the tunnel bringing water from Lesotho as an opportunity to try to get people to use less water — as a way of pushing back what would be Gauteng’s Day Zero.

Rand Water says that the Vaal system will still be at 65% capacity when the tunnel is opened in November. “The system is very tight and is coping well due to the interactions with our municipal customers to implement water demand management.”

Without Polihali, managing water demand is the province’s main hope of not running out of water.

Treating polluted water from mines — acid mine drainage — would give the province only 5% more water and add 25% more costs to Rand Water.

In a 2015 presentation to Rand Water, the water department had a slide that said: “Is RSA sliding into a water crisis situation? NO.” Avoiding a crisis would require actions such as tackling illegal water use, especially by farmers in the Free State, and reducing leaks — up to half of all water in the Vaal catchment leak out of old pipes. The presentation also said the key would be “timely decisions and appropriate investments”.

Gauteng’s metros are now meeting each quarter to discuss what they’re doing to save water. But these are also metros without mayors and torn apart by political battles over who controls them. Gauteng is run by the ANC while its biggest water user, the City of Johannesburg, is run by the Democratic Alliance. This means most institutions tasked with planning for a water crisis have their focus elsewhere.

Crisis is averted through planning and implementing those plans.

That isn’t happening in Gauteng.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is a former acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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