/ 6 November 2023

Joburg water outages: ‘Nobody should be living like this’

Water Crisis2
A City of Tshwane employee collects a sample of water from a municipal tank truck in Hammanskraal, where a cholera outbreak killed 15 people earlier this year. (Michele Spatari/Getty Images)

Farah Domingo wasn’t surprised by the update from Johannesburg Water that dropped on her phone last Friday afternoon.

It was the same message that Domingo, who lives in Bez Valley, in the east of Joburg, has been receiving regularly since September — the Alexander Park reservoir was critically low and would be throttled by 90% overnight to build capacity. Poor pressure — or even no water — was expected in the supply zone. The Berea reservoir, too, would be throttled by 90% overnight. 

“They [Johannesburg Water] send updates every evening but the only thing that changes is the date and the time they send out the notices because everything else, it’s like a template — copy and paste,” said Domingo, the spokesperson for the newly formed Water Crisis Committee.

The water supply problems in her area took hold at the start of this year — “every month we had issues” — but since June they have become a “regular occurrence”.

“September and October were the worst months where they would throttle the Alexander Park and Berea reservoirs at night … We don’t have water every single night. It’s not normal. Nobody should be living like this,” she said.

“They say they’re going to switch us off at 9pm but they switch us off anytime after 4pm, depending on the levels, I suppose, of the reservoir. 

“You’re lucky, if it’s back by 8am the next day. People are coming home from work — there’s no water; people are going to work and children are going to school the next day and there is no water.” 

On the weekend, Johannesburg Water said conditions at the Alexander Park reservoir had improved and it was supplying normally.

Mobilised into action

On 31 October, Domingo was among a group of Johannesburg residents who held a peaceful protest outside a city council meeting at the Brixton Multipurpose Centre over the crippling water outages affecting many suburbs across the metro.

They were joined by the Organisation for Undoing Tax Abuse and its WaterCAN Initiative and the Melville Residents’ Association. 

“Most of the people that came out to protest with us are from Fietas, Brixton, Mayfair, Crosby and they haven’t had water for months,” Domingo said. “Linmeyer hasn’t had water for more than 60 days. How do you let it get to the point where you don’t actually do something about it?” 

At the protest, she delivered a memorandum to Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda. It was from affected residents and households from suburbs including Auckland Park, Bruma, Bez Valley, Craighall Park, Crosby, Cyrildene, Emmarentia, Greenside, Jan Hofmeyer, Jumpers informal settlement, Melville, Parktown, Sophiatown, Vrededorp, Vrede Park, Westbury and Westdene, among others.

“We are communities from across Johannesburg united by our shared experience of water system failures,” it read. 

“Our experience of days and days without water has mobilised us to action … We now chase after water tankers, lose school and work days, because of sanitary conditions and spend money on buying water for consumption.

“The elderly go without water due to their inability to carry buckets from water tanks or inadequate communication on when the tankers will be in areas. Compounding this problem is the silence and the lack of clear and coherent communication from the City of Johannesburg to residents.”

Demands

The memorandum, among other things, demanded a public meeting within 14 days with the City of Johannesburg, Johannesburg Water, Rand Water, the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs and the department of water and sanitation (DWS), “who are responsible for overseeing this crisis, to present us with a credible and coherent plan”. 

“We want this plan to demonstrate that you have undertaken a credible root-cause analysis of the crisis and that the interventions in this plan are realistic, timebound and will actually be implemented in the real world,” it stated.

The plan must include weekly reports on the implementation of these plans with the “workable inclusion of community representatives from each of the communities that are facing the worst of this crisis”. 

It should also include a corruption risk assessment “that presents the risks and controls, recognising that service delivery crises are golden opportunities to loot …”

“This must include a detailed report on the procurement of water tankers — including evidence that proper controls are in place to prevent what [Water and Sanitation] Minister [Senzo] Mchunu described at Scopa [the standing committee on public accounts] in September last year as ‘water tanker scams, where municipal infrastructure was deliberately targeted by those who wanted to win tenders’,” the memo added.

‘World-class African city’

The plan, too, should include publications of schedules for water interruptions, “similar to load-shedding schedules, which clearly designate geographical supply areas affected when there is insufficient water to serve all communities”.

Gwamanda agreed to the meeting within 14 days and told the residents that he had noted “the fact that our communities are tired of a blame game”. 

“We live in a world-class African city, however, the conditions which our communities are subjected to are contradictory to such and that is a growing concern. We have recognised the fact that there is a trust deficit … We are committed to the restoration of services in the City of Johannesburg that have deteriorated over the past five years,” he said.

The Water Crisis Committee’s meeting, convened by WaterCAN, will be held on 11 November with Rand Water, Johannesburg Water and the DWS.

‘Inconsistent water supply’

At a media briefing last Wednesday regarding the status of the water supply, Johannesburg Water’s acting general manager for operations Logan Munsamy explained that the main challenge the utility is facing is inconsistent water supply.

“If we have consistent water supply into our reservoir systems, it means that the reservoirs stay full, as often as possible,” he said. “When the reservoirs are full, there’s no interruption of supply. What we’ve been experiencing in recent times is inconsistent supply.”

Johannesburg Water purchases potable water from Rand Water, stores it in its reservoirs and distributes it to the taps of end users. 

“Having inconsistent supply has resulted in city reservoirs not reaching their full capacity. What happens is they become critically low to empty and then, in order to recover these reservoirs, it sometimes takes days or weeks to recover them,” he said, adding that load-shedding also hinders the entity’s ability to distribute water to end users.

Munsamy said Rand Water had operational challenges. “The issue is not a shortage of water in the Vaal system. The issue is that to purify and distribute this water to the municipalities, that’s where the operational challenges come in.” 

These include electricity issues such as frequent power dips, power trips on pumps and electrical failures and “most of it is out of their control”, he said.

Daily meetings

Delivering an update on bulk water provision last Friday, Rand Water chief executive Sipho Mosai pointed out that the City of Johannesburg receives the lion’s share of the water that Rand Water supplies to Gauteng metros daily. 

In the short term, daily meetings are being held with all three of Gauteng’s metros and the DWS to work out water distribution in the system. 

“We look at the volumes we’re putting into the system and work out modalities as to how that water should be equitably shared so we don’t have one area taking more than the other and the other suffering,” Mosai said.

“At this point in time, we are currently over-abstracting from the catchment and as we know and has been clarified by the department of water and sanitation … it would be irresponsible to give us an additional abstraction at this point in time.”

Rand Water’s chief operating officer Mahlomola Mehlo said the City of Johannesburg’s consumption had declined from 1 670 million litres daily to 1 654 million litres last week but still remained above the target consumption of 1 493 million litres a day.

“All metros have shared with us their plans about what they will be doing in reticulation and we continue to identify systems that can be identified for load-shifting and that’s exactly what we do,” Mehlo said.

“That is why we can report that all three metros have got water, largely and partly due to those interventions of people that go out at night to close certain systems and then go out in the morning to open those systems. That is going to continue until all systems have stabilised and everyone has water.”