/ 28 October 2022

‘Gauteng water crisis is unacceptable when dams are at 95%’

Traditionally, local government has funded itself through sales of water and electricity and both of those incomes sources are severely strained now and the costs of service provision are rising sharply.

Climatologist Francois Engelbrecht has for several years warned that Gauteng faces Day Zero in the next 10 to 20 years as long droughts, caused by the climate crisis, batter South Africa. 

That taps have run dry in parts of the country’s economic hub in recent weeks has taken Engelbrecht, the director at the Global Change Institute at Wits University, by surprise. “Our institute has for a long time been pointing out the possibility of the Day Zero drought in Gauteng but of course, we always expect that would occur during a massive long-duration drought. 

“I never expected that we could have this type of crisis while the Integrated Vaal River System (IVRS) is at 95% of its capacity. It’s a huge concern because how on earth are we going to cope with a real drought that takes the level of the Vaal Dam to 25% as it was back in 2016, if we can’t even provide Gauteng with water when the system sits at 95%?”

‘Nothing to do with climate change’

What went wrong was a combination of load-shedding, infrastructure and governance. “Obviously climate has nothing to do with this water crisis, but it’s unacceptable that we should have a water crisis like this where businesses and vulnerable households are being affected, with such a wonderful supply in the eastern mega-dams — Gauteng gets roughly half of its water from these dams.” 

South Africa is in a La Niña weather cycle and has had two good rainfall seasons, which did bring floods. Generally South Africa depends on the La Niña events for its water security. 

“Usually we wait for the summer rains to replenish the system but now we go into summer and already we are in such a wonderful position of 95% and … to make it even more, we know that a further La Niña event has formed. The outlook for rainfall this summer is excellent and we expect a third season of above-normal rainfall”. 

In such a situation, he said, one would expect bulk water supplier Rand Water to focus on potential flood management.

Don’t blame consumers, heatwaves

Engelbrecht said pinning the blame on consumers erodes trust. The recent heatwave can’t be used as an excuse because the onset of a heatwave can be predicted a week before and that entities such as Rand Water have decades of experience in managing heatwaves. 

“Why didn’t we then run out of water during every past heatwave?”

Millions of people in Gauteng live in informal housing and need cool water when there is a  heatwave. 

“Now if we can’t even provide our people with water when the Vaal Dam sits at 93% and the IVRS is at 95%, how on earth are we going to look after our most vulnerable people during a massive El Nino event when the Vaal Dam’s level is back to 25% or maybe falls blow that critical threshold of 20%? Then, it is no exaggeration to say that if you’re an elderly person and you live in informal housing and you don’t have access to cool water, a heatwave is life-threatening.” 

Running out of water

Geohydrologist Gideon Groenewald relayed how during early 1940s, after the devastating drought and depression of 1933, a young student of engineering sciences from the University of Natal, “climbing in the majestic uKhahlamba-Drakensberg”, had a vision for water security in the Witwatersrand: harvesting rainfall in the highlands of Lesotho and transferring the water to the Vaal River system. 

The South African Geological Survey and engineers started planning the Lesotho Highlands Water Transfer Scheme, “carting drilling machines into the hinterland of Lesotho on the backs of faithful donkeys, surviving the severe winters of the Highlands to plan and engineer one of the largest transfers schemes in the world”, 40 years before the first brick was laid to build the Katse Dam. 

“The engineer died before his vision was accomplished, but his forewarning was that ‘if the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme was not fully operational by 2025, people in Johannesburg will run out of drinking water’.” 

Groenewald said the Lesotho development is years behind in scheduled engineering and by 2027, only three of five phases will be completed. 

“If the foresight of the engineer, who is now in history, was even close to reality, the people of Johannesburg will be in very serious trouble by 2060, if they make it at all … Do we have a young engineer at the largest metropolitan municipality in South Africa, who has a vision for Gauteng in 2060?” 

More water and better infrastructure

Joburg exists where it does because of gold – not water, said Gillian Maree, a senior researcher at the Gauteng City-Region Observatory. “And we’ve needed to invest in water infrastructure at the earliest stages of development of the City because of limited local water sources.” 

To be able to meet demands from a growing population and for the economic hub of South Africa, “we are entirely reliant on the functioning of the Integrated Vaal Catchment System and the performance of our water institutions.”

There is no significant means to augment existing water supply until Lesotho Highlands Phase 2 is completed – and that is now many years delayed. “Added to that, we have a highly variable climate with multi-year drought periods that are not uncommon. Climate change will only compound climatic uncertainty and water risk.” 

Water demand, she said, is variable and tends to be highest in October – at the start of summer and before the first rains of the year and “I don’t think this was fully considered this year,” Maree said. “To manage that risk we need to be constantly vigilant about the city-region’s water supply and need to regularly evaluate water availability and use.

“We also need to consider the impact of rising temperatures and the impact of heatwaves on water demand. As temperatures rise so will the evaporation of water and during periods of heat waves demands for water for cooling will also increase.”

Increased droughts, floods

Droughts and floods are part of South Africa’s climate variability and a changing climate means that they are likely to increase in frequency and intensity. Additionally, heat waves are likely to increase as well.

“Because we are reliant on water from the IVRS infrastructure that is far from Joburg (rather than local sources) it is not always apparent when we have issues with water supply. Add to that, decision-making by water authorities is not always transparent and very little data is shared with the public so it makes it difficult to understand why certain decisions are taken.”

Even under normal conditions, and without the ability to significantly increase the water supply to Gauteng, “we need to ensure that water is available … to meet demands while considering highly likely periods of water stress. And that can mean that even though the IVRS is full we need to keep some water ‘savings’ for possible water stress in the next few years.”

Tricky balancing act

It’s more likely going forward to have water restrictions in place when the dams are full to minimise the risk of a Day Zero scenario in the next few years, she said. “We are at that point now where we are abstracting more water from the Vaal than we should. While I don’t think that it is a problem at the moment, we do need to be careful with what we do use so that we don’t create risk for next year if this year does not have good rainfall. It’s a tricky balancing act and one where we do need to improve decision-making and communication from water institutions.”

The impacts of water shortages “reflect the inequalities we have in our society”, Maree said. “Poorer, more vulnerable households are likely to feel the impacts more acutely. The infrastructure in some of the townships areas which have very high population densities are more likely to experience water cuts or water shedding than richer suburban areas and there are not adequate plans to manage for those impacts.”

Traditionally, local government has funded itself through sales of water and electricity and both of those incomes sources are severely strained now and the costs of service provision are rising sharply. Maree also believes we need to have serious conversations about ways to fund infrastructure development and maintenance.