/ 14 November 2023

Gauteng’s treated water availability is tight, says water and sanitation department

South African Department Of Water And Sanitation Opens Sluice Gates At Vaal Dam
Rand Water is already over the limit for water it can extract from the Integrated Vaal River System (IVRS) and it would be irresponsible to increase it for Gauteng, said the director general of the department of water and sanitation.(Photo by Deaan Vivier/Beeld/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Rand Water is already over the limit for water it can extract from the Integrated Vaal River System (IVRS) and it would be irresponsible to increase it for Gauteng, said the director general of the department of water and sanitation.

Rand Water’s total capacity is 5 200 million litres of treated water a day. “We have to ensure that in the IVRS, the amount of water that’s taken out … is managed in such a way that we don’t end up in an even worse crisis,” said Sean Phillips, who was describing the root causes of the water supply problems in Johannesburg.

“We can’t have a situation where Rand Water is extracting so much water from the IVRS that if we have a drought in a few months time, that we would run the risk of all the dams running completely dry and a Day Zero-type situation. We have to ensure a degree of responsibility as to how much water is extracted from the Vaal River system.”

Phillips was addressing a meeting hosted and facilitated by WaterCAN, an initiative of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse, on Saturday, with Rand Water, the department and Johannesburg Water, civil society organisations and residents from multiple suburbs affected by water outages. 

The meeting, held at the Women’s Jail at Constitution Hill, sought solutions to the ongoing water crisis in Johannesburg. The City of Johannesburg did not attend.

Farah Domingo, the spokesperson for the newly-formed water crisis committee, said that not having water for seven days in her area prompted residents to establish the committee. “I look after my 81-year-old mother and cleaning her with buckets of water in the middle of the night — we don’t have water every night — it’s very difficult.”

No buffer 

Phillips said the R40 billion phase two of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project — the Polihali Dam — had been delayed by nine years. Although it is now under construction, it is due to be completed by 2028. Only then will it be possible for Rand Water to increase its abstraction of water from the IVRS.

Gauteng’s population now numbers more than 16 million people and the demand for water has grown rapidly. The province is a water-scarce area in a water-scarce country. “There simply isn’t sufficient naturally occurring water in the Gauteng area to supply the water demands to 16 million people and all the industries in Gauteng.” 

The demand-supply relationship for treated water in Gauteng is “very tight”, he said, and the system is vulnerable to disruptions caused by heavy load-shedding, electro-mechanical breakdowns or the theft of cables. 

Usually such breakdowns would not have a noticeable effect on water supply because of the ability to draw on reserve supply capacity, but there is no longer any reserve supply capacity. 

In Johannesburg, water is usually gravity-fed from municipal reservoirs to households, this means that high-lying areas are worst affected by supply disruptions.

Rand Water has a R35 billion investment programme, which the bulk supplier is timing so that by the time phase two starts putting a lot more water into the IVRS, it will have the capacity to treat a lot more water. “Then the supply and demand situation for treated water in Gauteng should improve,” said Phillips.

Even so, Gauteng’s long-term water consumption will need to be carefully managed because there are limits to which further phases of the project or other water transfer projects can continue to provide additional water to Gauteng at an affordable cost. 

“As we go for more expensive ways of bringing more water to Gauteng, that water is going to become more expensive for all of us in Gauteng. So, there’s an imperative for us to use water more sparingly because there isn’t a limitless supply of cheap water you can bring from elsewhere.”

Phillips said “everyone needs to work together” to bring down the average per person water consumption in Gauteng of 253 litres a day closer to the world average of 173 litres per person a day.

What needs to be done

Rand Water’s infrastructure is well-maintained and it loses only 3% of its water to leaks. On average, across Gauteng’s municipalities, their physical water losses stand at 35%. “The problem is not with Rand Water. The problem is in the municipalities, in their systems, due to decades of neglect and lack of maintenance.” 

Joburg’s physical losses are 24% to 25%, while the international norm is 15%, “so Joburg is not doing too badly compared to many other municipalities. Nonetheless, we can have much less risk of the kind of supply disruptions that we’ve had, for the next few years if we can reduce these physical losses, because it will mean much more water available in the system,” said Phillips.

Municipalities need to improve their billing and revenue collection and allocate sufficient funding for maintenance and leak reduction, as well as invest in additional pumps, reservoirs and pipelines “that can make the system less vulnerable to disruptions”.

Rand Water’s chief operating officer, Mahlomola Mehlo, said its system is a “live system”, which will, from time to time, experience issues of infrastructure fatigue. “It’s 120-year-old machinery so you can imagine some of the infrastructure that we operate is that old. Be that as it may, it talks to a very robust maintenance programme, renewal of infrastructure and the rehabilitation of assets.”

Although most of its systems are exempt from load-shedding, “we have seen over time due to the instability of the grid, especially as we move from stages four to six, that we’ve got a lot more power supply interruptions”. 

This is not necessarily from load-shedding but “purely from the instability of the grid”, Mehlo said, adding that strong relationships that have been formed with Eskom and City Power have helped to mitigate these supply risks.

“We’re quite alive to the fact that we’re not going to get off the grid tomorrow but we’ve got a hydropower and solar bid that has recently been adjudicated,” he said, adding it had procured huge generators, strategically placed at its tertiary sites to help counter the effects of load-shedding.

Logan Munsamy, the senior manager of operations at Johannesburg Water, said the City of Johannesburg should be consuming about 1 500 million litres of water a day, but it’s a concern that its consumption is still hovering above that.

“When we talk about consumption, we’re talking about the entire City of Johannesburg with all its challenges and its complexities. The weather does play a portion of it, the losses in the system also does play a part in it, but through our initiatives together with our partner Rand Water, you can see we’re starting to show a downward trajectory, which is a positive outlook.”

‘Perfect storm’

Craig Sheridan, the Claude Leon Foundation chair in water research and the director of the Centre in Water Research and Development at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the city is facing a “perfect storm”.

“We have climate change; we have water scarcity; we have population growth; we have poor city planning, which is why there’s too many people and not enough water. We have law enforcement challenges, which we’re all faced with at a personal level, and we’re facing at a municipal level and at a national level.”

Other problems include ageing systems and infrastructure, load-shedding and declining revenue in real international monetary terms “so we’ve got less bang for our buck when we’re buying international equipment”.

Sheridan said there are political instability and silos in the city. “We have civil distress, that’s why we’re all here … but what we’re not having is an integrated response. What I mean by that is you’re trying to put out fires right now. You’re not managing to address our current challenges, never mind manage our future needs within the budgetary constraints that we’re all trying to look at.”

The authorities need to share water data. “Your city planners have to know what the water quality is, what the water needs are [and] how much is being supplied because if that’s not publicly available information, when people start to develop … they don’t understand how the impact of this development will impact your water supply systems,” he said. “And once you’ve got this data, please lean on us as academics and as civil society. We can help.”

Munsamy said: “At the moment, we are so fixated on killing fires, we’re running all over the show. We just need to regroup and refocus and have these forum discussions as a utility and as a municipality and partner with you, you’re the eyes and ears … I’m not saying we run the perfect system but together we can push towards achieving it and we are going to work with civil society.”

Ferrial Adam, the executive manager of WaterCAN, proposed setting up a civil society water forum, which is now underway. The forum will include senior representatives from DWS, Rand Water, Johannesburg Water and, “hopefully, the City of Johannesburg.

“We want people who can give answers to questions and who can action items,” Adam said. The forum would ensure that crucial information is available to residents and that responses to the water crisis are coordinated. “We want timelines, plans, budgets. Let’s find constructive ways to get to solutions. Let’s keep trying.”