/ 13 October 2023

Cape Town offers lessons on how to save water

What It's Like To Live In A City Without Water
Crisis averted: A sign in a restroom helped promote the use of waterless hand sanitizer in Cape Town in 2018, during the worst drought on record in the region after years of low rainfall. Authorities named 11 May as the infamous “Day Zero” when water would run out if reservoir levels kept falling and consumption did not slow enough – but managed to avoid this because people changed their behaviour. Photo: Waldo Swiegers/Getty

Our water issues as a country are well-documented. Last week’s Mail & Guardian was filled with content about water issues in Gauteng, specifically. 

Some regions in the province haven’t had water for extended periods. In our coverage, we highlighted how the provincial population has grown significantly yet the amount of water it receives hasn’t. A key issue is load-shedding, which has reduced pumping to certain areas and reservoirs.

A recent chain of events severely impacted water reaching consumers in the province. In a press briefing Logan Munsamy, Joburg Water’s senior networks manager, explained the reasons for this. He highlighted that a combination of more than one power cut, a burst pipe and a thunderstorm affected the water utility’s ability to pump water to residents in parts of Gauteng. 

The combination of these events had a massive impact on water reservoirs and high-lying areas, in particular, faced water shortages and low water pressure as a result.

It’s critical to note that our country is water-scarce and these issues will only worsen as we enter the El Niño weather pattern, bringing drier, hotter weather. It’s concerning that the water situation may be exacerbated. 

But equally concerning for me are two aspects that need more attention from the water and sanitation department.

These two aspects are interlinked. They are our water use and non-revenue water, which is treated water that doesn’t reach the consumer. 

This piece aims to look at these issues and some possible solutions.

Let’s start with water use. South Africans in general use more water than the global average. Globally, the average individual user uses 173 litres of water per day. In South Africa the general user uses 237 litres per day, according to to water expert Anja du Plessis.

That number is even more in Gauteng. 

Du Plessis notes that partly due to temperature “the province’s residents consume an estimated 300 litres (which includes water losses) each a day”. The province experienced a heat wave recently.

This number is much higher than the global average. It is something that needs to be worked on. We can take lessons from nearby Cape Town. 

When the city faced the prospect of running out of water in 2018 after a drought, it embarked on a series of initiatives to save water. Some important ones included limiting the number of litres households could use. It charged a higher tariff to people who were using more than the allotted amount.

Naturally in a country with high disparity, this impacted vulnerable people more. People could apply for more use depending on how many people lived in a household. The city regularly communicated how much water was being used and how the dams were looking, spreading effective communication to citizens. 

Water was also throttled through new technologies. Smart meters were installed, which aided in stopping water loss.

Another key step the city took was to fix infrastructure, which helped to stop leaks. This is desperately needed in Gauteng.

Non-revenue water, or water that pumped and lost, is a major problem in the country. Global best practice has this loss at 15%. Comparatively, South Africa loses a staggering 41%-44%. That needs to come down. If the utilities are not receiving money for it and people aren’t getting to use this water, it’s a major loss. 

Infrastructure must be updated to ensure that these losses do not occur. 

When faced with the possibility of “Day Zero”, Cape Town embarked on a process of fixing its infrastructure. It’s pivotal that this also happens countrywide. Smart meters can help detect water losses, because in municipalities, sorting out leaks and infrastructure is key. 

The water and sanitation department needs to work with these municipalities to lessen these losses. It will result in more water and more revenue to be used to upgrade infrastructure.

To deal with the crisis, the department has said a new strategy called water shifting will be implemented. In a nutshell, this is shifting water from areas with stable water supply, usually low-lying areas, to those in high-lying areas. 

Du Plessis says: “Pressure is lost when reservoirs reach critically low levels. This can happen as a result of leakages, burst pipes, above-average water consumption or power outages which affect pump stations.”

Water shifting will mean moving water from areas that don’t experience these pressures to areas that do. This is a temporary solution, according to Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu. It is not a long-term solution.

As much as it pains me to say this, higher water tariffs should be considered for people who are using more than their basic allocation. But it must be implemented in a way that doesn’t further disadvantage vulnerable people. 

Leakages and infrastructure must be fixed and prioritised. More communication must be issued to people using excessive water. There must be a plan to ensure that water use is not exceeded. Municipalities need to get their act together as well. For a water-scarce country, it will be crucial to implement these measures before climate change causes drought conditions where it will be too late to implement solutions.