/ 23 March 2024

Myriad causes of SA’s water crisis

A Family Of Brickmakers Struggle With Economy In Mthatha, South Africa
Not a drop to drink: Ndenzeni Njwenene, 82, fetches water for from a river near Mthatha. Despite millions being spent on a project in the ward, seven years later taps are still dry. Many municipalities in the Eastern Cape fail to provide potable water. Photo: Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

The saying “lightning never strikes the same place twice” means the event is unusual and is unlikely to happen again — but this is not true. 

The Eikenhof pump station in Johannesburg South tripped after City Power’s transformer was struck by lightning on 3 March. The pump station had another power failure on 18 March caused by a lightning strike at the Orlando substation in Soweto. 

Lightning striking twice matters because the first lightning strike resulted in many people going without water for up to 11 days. 

A statement from Joburg Water said the latest outage would mean water could not be pumped to suburbs such as Brixton, Crosby and Hursthill. 

These problems are all too common in this part of Johannesburg. Other suburbs such as Auckland Park, Melville, Brixton, Mayfair and Vrededorp also frequently experience water cuts when there are problems at the Eikenhof pump station. 

Water problems are not restricted to Johannesburg.

Gauteng’s lightning and thunder showers used to make people happy. It used to mean that dams were full and water shortages were not a concern. Now, whether the dams are full or not makes no difference. Despite the Vaal Dam, which supplies Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Free State, Limpopo, North West, and the Northern Cape, sitting at about 67%, it is a struggle to get this water to people because of load-shedding, which affects water infrastructure. 

South Africa has a serious sewage problem, as documented in the recent Green Drop report, which serves as a guide for wastewater management. About 67.6% of wastewater treatment works fail to adequately clean raw sewage. 

That sewage inevitably ends up in rivers and other water bodies such as the Vaal Dam, Hartbeespoort Dam and areas in Mogale City. Hammanskraal and the cholera outbreak last year is evidence of how broken the sewerage system is. 

In Durban, the water problems seem to be escalating. There are constant reports of high E. coli levels in the sea and more recently there have been incidents of water-shedding and water shortages in some areas of eThekwini metro. 

Since the floods in April 2022, water has been an issue in many parts of northern KwaZulu-Natal. The infrastructure requires major servicing for water to be properly restored. 

In Knysna in the Western Cape, problems with water and sewage are mounting, including ageing infrastructure. The region has been run by a coalition government since 2022 and the Democratic Alliance believe it is mismanaged and corrupt and has now approached the South African Human Rights Commission about the situation. 

In Limpopo, the Elim Hospital about 21km from Louis Trichardt has been without water for three weeks. The hospital is reliant on water tankers because other water supplies have run dry. The hospital has attempted to reach groundwater through boreholes but this has not been successful. 

Water woes plague the Vhembe district and people are fed up, so much so that the minister for water and sanitation had to be rushed away recently after speaking to angry residents about water shortages. 

Deadly Disease Arrives At The Doorstep Of South African Power
Unsafe: Residents return home after collecting clean drinking water from tankers in Hammanskraal during the cholera outbreak that caused the death of 23 people. Photo: Leon Sadiki/Getty Images

South Africa recently signed an agreement for the transfer of treated water from Beitbridge Water Treatment Works in Zimbabwe to Musina. The project is expected to be completed in 2026. In the interim the water and sanitation department will work with the Vhembe municipality to address water “challenges” and rehabilitate nonfunctioning boreholes. 

This month is National Water Month and is an expansion of World Water Day observed on 22 March. South Africa’s water situation is very far from where it needs to be. 

The Constitution states that everyone has the right to sufficient water while the Water Services Act states that everyone has a right to a basic water supply and sanitation services, that water institutions take steps to realise these rights and that every municipality must have a water services development plan to realise these rights. 

This is not happening in many areas of the country. 

Parts of the country have little to no water and sewage pollution is a health risk. As people take to the polls on 29 May, these are crucial matters to note when deciding who to vote for. 

Infringing on basic human rights cannot be forgiven.