/ 21 February 2023

Contaminated or none at all: South Africa’s water affairs are cause for concern

Tap Water
Johannesburg Water said full recovery will take five to 14 days. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

What’s that old saying? Water is life. If water is indeed life, we must ask if the state of South Africa’s water is on life support.

I live in Crosby, Johannesburg, and we are prone to regular water cuts that invariably lead to a day or two with no water. We’re constantly told that the Brixton and Hursthill reservoirs are strained and we must limit our water usage. Load-shedding makes the situation worse, of course. Not having water is much worse than having no electricity. 

Joburg’s water issues are well-documented, as the city battles to pump water with the power cuts and the province gets more than its fair share of those. Writing for The Outlier, Gemma Ritchie noted how “ageing infrastructure in need of maintenance, and power outages were at the root of the problem, rather than a shortage of water”.

A power failure at the Vereeniging’s water works led to a number of suburbs being without water, Crosby included.

So, even though dams are essentially full, that does not mean people living in the metro get proper water supply. There are swathes of suburban dwellers who have to make do with no piped water. 

Water issues all over the country

In a recent article, my colleague Sheree Bega found that the Zandspruit sewage pump station is overflowing with sewage. The sewage is pouring into the Klein Jukskei and Sandspruit rivers. This affects people from parts of Fourways all the way to Hartbeespoort Dam, which covers a wide area. 

Speaking of Harties, as it’s affectionately known, most Joburgers will at some point have driven next to it and seen the water hyacinth take over. These green flowers have spread rapidly as sewage pollution into the dam is a fertiliser, resulting in even faster growth. Luckily there’s a bug, water hyacinth hoppers, that can eat the flowers to limit its spread.

Let’s not forget the high-risk pollution of the Vaal dam, also caused by sewage inflows from broken infrastructure, which threatens Gauteng’s drinking water supply.

The water problems this country has are critical. Let’s look at other regions. 

You’ve got the Eastern Cape where in Nelson Mandela Bay certain dam levels are under 10%.  A huge amount is being spent to augment the water supply, while communities have been asked to minimise usage to stave off day zero. 

Then there are the KwaZulu-Natal water troubles which have been exasperated due to the floods. Recently, the South African Human Rights Commission looked into how people faced violation of their right to sufficient clean water. More specifically, following concerns from residents, the commission collected data on how many people had no water for days after the floods.

We’ve also been made well aware of the sewage streaming into the oceans, with popular beaches being closed during the festive season. 

Sidenote: At the end of 2019, I went to Durban’s North Beach for a swim. I can’t remember when last I was that sick — terrible gastro with all the bells and whistles. 

The floods that hit the province in April last year caused a massive sewage spill into the ocean. But water expert Anja Du Plessis notes how “the floods aren’t the sole cause of the sewage crisis. The failure of water infrastructure and wastewater treatment works has been an issue over the past two decades, escalating every year”. 

While we’re talking about floods, seven of the nine provinces were affected by this month’s floods, prompting the government to announce another state of disaster. Mpumalanga was one of the provinces hardest hit. 

The wetter weather can be attributed to the third year of the La Niña weather phenomenon. 

In 2018, Cape Town was all over the news as the country faced a looming day-zero water crisis. People had to lower usage, higher tariffs were introduced and, as with every catastrophe, the marginalised and vulnerable were affected the most. Day zero never came and dams have since filled up. 

In December last year, the city experienced beach closures as sewage was spilling into the oceans, as my colleague Lesego Chepape reported. Old infrastructure and load-shedding were blamed. Are you seeing the pattern?

The point I’m trying to make is that we’re in a La Niña season which, for South Africa, means wetter weather. What happens when we enter an El Niño patch? This means dryer, warmer weather, and drought-like conditions. 

The last time South Africa was in the dry weather pattern, Cape Town braced for day zero, and, higher up in the country, the Vaal Dam dropped to around 20% in Johannesburg. 

What if it’s worse the next time El Niño comes around? Can our major cities cope with drought? How will our leaders react? Will our most vulnerable people be protected? Will provisions be made for them? 

If my small sample size of Crosby is anything to go by, the regular water cuts we experience mean hospitals are without water and need water tankers to be supplied occasionally. If an entire city is without water, will the tankers be enough? The rich will get Jojo’s and boreholes, but the rest may have to get by on thoughts and prayers. 

Let’s hope contingencies will be in place and the reaction is swift. I’m usually a glass-half-full type of person, but our leaders don’t fill my cup with hope and optimism — especially since they battle to provide water while dams are full. 

For now, let’s hope the rains keep coming. But not the floods, damaging property and causing lives to be lost. Those we can do without.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.