Editorial: South Africa’s next big crisis is water

We’ve been warned for years that after Eskom, South Africa’s next crisis will be water and that it could be far worse than rolling power blackouts we’ve endured for about 14 years now.

The emerging reality for many residents in small towns, rural areas and cities, is that their own Day Zero is looming — or is already here.

Across numerous municipalities countrywide, there are signs of the collapse of water services — in failing infrastructure, non-payment for water services, mismanagement and corruption, all of which compromise the operation and maintenance of water systems.

As a water-scarce country, South Africa is facing a myriad of complex water problems: these include ageing water infrastructure, growing water scarcity, drought, the impacts of climate change, and worsening pollution risks.

This week, many residents of Johannesburg panicked during Rand Water’s 54-hour planned water supply reduction, which largely kept water, albeit at low pressure, in the taps. 

Gauteng, experts say, is in for far worse in the next 10 to 20 years as long droughts caused by climate change hammer the country. The economic heartland already came dangerously close during the 2015-16 El Nino drought when the Vaal dam fell to below 25% in September 2016. 

Even back then, with tighter water restrictions in force, many Johannesburg residents continued to flout pleas for water conservation, watering their gardens, filing their swimming pools and washing their cars with dwindling drinking water. 

South Africans use more water than the global average — 234 litres per person daily — which means the country’s per capita water consumption is higher than the global average of 173 litres. 

In 2018, the National Water and Sanitation Master Plan identified a water supply deficit of 17% by 2030.

It also acknowledged that only 64% of households had safe, reliable access to water.  

At least 9% of the country’s population draw their water from polluted rivers and springs, while more than 37% of our drinking water is lost through leaking pipes and other infrastructure failures.

Nearly half of all the country’s water bodies have poor water quality because of pollution and the destruction of river catchments. 

And with raw sewage gushing into waterways from failing municipal wastewater treatment works, which is “dire and widespread”, the South African Human Rights Commission says this should be declared a national disaster under the Disaster Management Act.

The collapse of our freshwater ecosystems and the services they provide hurts their ability to regulate hydraulic flows, avert flooding and purify water for us to drink. Half of our country’s river flow is provided by just 10% of land area, but most of this land is not protected.

Experts say that R1-trillion is needed to recapitalise the water sector, which has largely collapsed because of mismanagement over two decades — but that this won’t be available. 

South Africans are simply going to have to learn to do more with less.

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