/ 21 October 2022

Gauteng water shortages: A perfect storm ‘turning into a hurricane’

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One expert says the outages are a wake-up call for how water is managed in the country’s economic hub. (Delwyn Verasamy)

The water shortages that have affected thousands of people in Gauteng are a “perfect storm” that is “developing into a hurricane”, said water expert Anja du Plessis.

Taps have run dry in several suburbs for weeks, with high-lying areas worst hit, because of rolling blackouts that affect the pumping of water, major infrastructural backlogs and increased demand because of hot temperatures. 

The biggest drivers are decaying water storage, supply and treatment infrastructure; poor planning; lack of financing to maintain ageing infrastructure and the government’s failure to keep pace with rapid urbanisation in the three biggest metros, Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni, according to Du Plessis, associate professor and research specialist in integrated water resource management at Unisa.

“You have this thing of delayed action or no action at all, and that has obviously contributed to the collapse of infrastructure in certain regions of Johannesburg, but you also have issues of poor planning because the city has exploded in terms of population.”

No buffer

Taps running dry showed that some reservoirs do not have a reserve of 48 hours and this was why some areas in Johannesburg were without water, she said.

The water outages in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni will be used as case studies, “to show that even though you have water [the Integrated Vaal River System is at 93%], if your infrastructure is not suitable and it’s basically collapsing, you’re still going to have water shortages and you’re affecting the overall water security of your major economic hub.”

Action plan

This week, the water and sanitation minister, Senzo Mchunu, announced his department would temporarily increase the bulk water allocation to Rand Water’s system for the next nine months to ease water shortages in the three metros while more permanent solutions to water use and management were sought. 

Rand Water said it had throttled supply by 30% because water was being used faster than it could be supplied. 

“There continues to be overuse in the province, which puts a strain on the system that led to Rand Water having to inform their customers of the need to restrict,” said Mchunu. “This does not imply that there is a crisis of water availability but is rather a means to manage the system through reduction and therefore bringing balance to the system.” 

He said that up to 40% of the country’s water is lost to leakages.

Du Plessis said 41% of water is lost because of leakages resulting from poor operation and maintenance of existing aged water infrastructure, commercial losses caused by meter manipulation or other forms of water theft as well as unbilled, authorised consumption such as firefighting.

The national average for the loss of non-revenue municipal water is 41% “but is most probably much higher”, she said. Global best practice is 15%.

On increasing the allocation, Du Plessis said: “You can basically increase the water allocation towards Mogale City, Joburg, Pretoria and Ekurhuleni … to your heart’s content … but there are so many leaks towards the reservoirs and also to the consumers. That’s why we don’t have water.”

Water scarcity is a major problem and consumers must use less water, but “if there is no water coming out of your tap, you can’t really use less water”.

“That whole narrative obviously plays a role but you can’t just put all the blame on consumers only. It’s like Eskom asking us to use less power when we don’t have it. That’s the narrative that political parties are using, pointing fingers at consumers, whereas the issue is with them because they have been sitting with this for more than two decades and haven’t invested in infrastructure.”

‘Not a systemic problem’

Mike Muller, former director general of the department of water affairs and forestry and visiting adjunct professor at Wits University’s School of Governance, believes, in part, this is a typical October issue. It is caused by very hot weather before the first rains which causes a spike in consumption that puts a strain on the capacity of local reservoirs. 

“If we were being sensationalist about it, we could even blame climate change which, it has been suggested, could cause the rains to start later (but to be heavier through the season). 

“Then there is the contribution of load-shedding, which has reduced pumping, again in some of the smaller distribution points, but may have caused some tripping of larger Rand Water pumps, reducing the delivery of water to the municipal reservoirs.”

Some of those reservoirs may not provide enough reserves to support daytime peak demands in their supply areas, “which is not a systemic problem but very distressing for the people affected”.

Secure supply

Referring to Mchunu’s announcement, Muller said perhaps the more important long-term question was: “How secure is the supply from the Integrated Vaal River System?”  

“As he [Mchunu] explained, Rand Water was sticking to the limit of its ‘abstraction licence’ which, over these last weeks, was not enough to meet the demand. Since the dams are currently so full, thanks to La Nina … Minister Mchunu was advised that he could allow Rand Water to exceed the abstraction limit, temporarily … to relieve the pressure.”

But, the limit will have to be maintained. “If we use more, we risk reducing the storage of the system which, if there is a major drought, will leave the Gauteng and surrounding region facing severe restrictions.”

‘Wake-up call’

This has been a wake-up call, he said. “We have now reached the limit of the safe yield that can come from the existing dams and, until the new supply comes in in 2028, we will need to use water more carefully and efficiently.

“That will require coordinated action by everyone from the minister downwards, including Rand Water, provincial government, municipalities and, of course, the users themselves.”

As part of this, there will have to be better communication with users. “Ideally, in every community, householders should know which local reservoir their water comes from, how much is being used every month and what the target is that they should be trying to reach.” 

Municipalities will have to improve their performance on leak management, metering and billing to reduce non-revenue water, especially that lost through leaks or taken by unauthorised users and not monitored. 

“In addition, all users, householders as well as businesses and public institutions like schools, should be helped to track and reduce their water use. The state of the reserves in the Vaal River system should be regularly reported and people told whether water use is on track or still too high.”

This approach, Muller said, could avoid Gauteng and the other areas served by Rand Water from suffering a Cape Town-style Day Zero event when the country returns to “normal” drier seasons.

Expensive alternative

Du Plessis added: “If this was like the blackout crisis … you as a citizen can say, ‘Okay, fine, I will try to invest in a power bank, inverter or a generator or whatever.’ Unfortunately with water, there is no alternative.”

The outlook is “not a pretty picture” for water security in Gauteng in the future. “Invest in a tank — but it’s expensive and most people don’t have the capacity to invest in something they are not the cause of.”

Referring to Johannesburg mayor Dada Morero’s call for each house in the city to be equipped with a water tank, Du Plessis said: “The cheapest one is R2 500 and … we calculated — the amount is absolutely ridiculous. 

“For him to say he’ll give each person a tank, that’s once again treating the symptom. In terms of actually tackling the cause of this issue, which is the collapse of infrastructure, there has to be some kind of accountability. Hopefully, in the future, there will be more political will and some kind of accountability.”