By Sinazo Mkoko
Water – a scarce yet invaluable resource in our lives. Without it, no animal, plant or human can survive, as Leonardo da Vinci succinctly put it: “Water is the driving force of all nature.”
Often referred to as water-scarce, South Africa is one of the 30 driest countries in the world according to the United Nations World Water Development. The loss of a substantial amount of treated water through leaking pipe and inadequate infrastructure is adding to the challenges that the country already faces.
Speaking at the Siemens in Africa panel addressing water and infrastructure challenges faced by the City of Joburg, the CEO of Rand Water, Sipho Mosai, said the city alone is currently going through a watershed moment, where there’s a need to relook at the interface and interactions with water.
“The earth doesn’t get any new water from outer space, the earth recycles water and that pattern is unpredictable. We have one of the highest evaporation rate [sic] and one of the lowest rainfall and without climate change, it really requires us to adapt. In Johannesburg, we’re one of the highest water consumers of water in the world. We are currently sitting at 300 litres per capita per day on average the world is sitting at 173. We’ve been asking ourselves questions and we want to take our consumers through the journey of clearly understanding that this is a finite resource and we have climate change and we need to look at how we use water,” he said.
Reasons behind water shortages in Gauteng Responding in parliament about the reasons why the north and southwest areas of Johannesburg are experiencing inconsistent water supply, Water and Sanitation Minister, Senzo Mchunu, said two of Rand Water’s purification plants, Zuikerbosh and Vereeniging, and two major pumps stations (Palmiet and Eikenhof) supplying large parts of the city were affected by power failures. Hon. Mchunu added that Rand Water’s operating philosophy is to maintain the reservoir levels between 60-80%.
“This targeted range is intended to enable the network system to be resilient and respond to any challenges. Historically, during September to January, water consumption increases exponentially in Gauteng. It was with this understanding that we wrote to the high consumers – City of Tshwane, City of Johannesburg, and City of Ekurhuleni; to encourage and plead for reduced consumption in anticipation of the increased demand for water. Despite these efforts, water consumption continued to increase significantly.” Minister Mchunu went on to say that Rand Water’s overall water storage declined from 52% to 38%.
“Stemming from this decline, a meeting was convened with the Metros to notify them of the intention to apply Stage 1 restrictions. Despite these efforts, water storage levels continued to decline and that prompted Rand Water to apply Stage 2; the restrictions are necessary to stabilise the system.”
The Minister shared that the department carries out a number of assessments into the state of water and sanitation infrastructure in the municipalities. These assessments, he said, enable the department to monitor the condition of municipal water and sanitation infrastructure through three incentivebased regulatory mechanisms including: the Green Drop Report, which focuses on sanitation (waste-water treatment systems and effluent quality), the Blue Drop Report, which focuses on water (water treatment and water quality) and the No Drop Report, which focuses on non-revenue water and water losses through leakages.
“Findings of the 2022 Green Drop Report indicated that 334 Wastewater Treatment Systems have been identified to be at critical state by achieving less than 30% during Green Drop Assessment. Letters of non-compliance in terms of audit findings have been sent to respective water services institutions responsible for the systems at critical state, requiring them to submit a detailed corrective action plans. To date, eighteen municipalities responsible for 81 wastewater treatment systems have submitted action plans. The department has also collaborated with SALGA and MISA to assist municipalities on the development of action plans,]” he said.
According to the Department of Water and Sanitation, the approach for implementing restrictions involves communication on implementation of restrictions to all municipalities that are supplied by Rand Water and to implement restrictions to the three Metros which utilise approximately 80% of Rand Water’s supply, as well as:
- Identifying major meters under each municipality that will be restricted (53 meters under Johannesburg, 57 under Ekurhuleni and 28 under Tshwane).
- These meters are monitored over a period of two weeks to assess and review progress to achieve the desired results. As for the current stages two (30%) water supply restrictions that has been implemented effective from 04 October 2022, will be reviewed
- If the performance of Rand Water’s supply has not improved after two weeks, the review of the implemented water supply restrictions will dictate if other municipalities will be included
- If the performance of Rand Water’s supply does improve after two weeks, the review of the implemented water supply restrictions will dictate reduction to stage one (10%) or removal of restrictions.
These restrictions are aimed at restoring the overall reservoir storage capacity to approximately 60%. Rand Water has formally consulted with the affected municipalities to inform them of its intention to implement the restrictions. The situation is reviewed on an hourly basis and where improvements are made, Rand Water lifts the restrictions to provide reprieve. Rand Water’s consultation with the customers is designed to ensure that no areas are left without water for a prolonged period.
Water crisis likely to be worse than energy crisis
Other leaders in this sector have also raised concerns about South Africa’s water crisis. Weighing in on the current crisis Gauteng is facing, managing director of AECOM Africa, Darrin Green, warned that this crisis is likely to be worse than the energy crisis. “The energy crisis is confronting us first or maybe it is the most obvious, but for me, the current water shortage in Gauteng is absolutely a worse crisis. While the fundamental issues are the same, it is going to be a much more difficult situation for people to live with on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
Finding possible solutions to ensure a sustainable water supply
According to the co-founder and CEO of Kampwater, Hans van Kamp, there are ways in which the country can survive a possible “day zero” when the municipal taps are shut off. Kampwater is a Stellenboschbased water treatment supplier assisting affected organisations like hospitals to overcome the water crisis. Van Kamp said the sources of clean, fresh water in South Africa are limited and organisations and homeowners are looking at different ways of water supply that are less dependent on the current infrastructure. “Water supply systems and the distribution networks are high on maintenance. In Gqeberha it is estimated that 40% of the municipal water is lost due to leaking pipes.
In the rest of the country, large amounts of treated, clean, drinkable water are lost daily because of the thousands upon thousands of leaks that characterise South Africa’s water piping system. “Compounding this is the fact that we have not had good rains for more than seven years and we have had a sharp increase in water consumption from across sectors, be it residential, business, or other. One of the solutions should be that a major part of the maintenance budget should be spent on the infrastructure, the current pipework network. Most of the maintenance work should be spent on preventative maintenance and upgrades to cope with the increasing demand. However, most municipalities are struggling to keep up and keeping the system from collapsing. There are some exceptions but not many,” said Van Kamp. He added that the current water system and the challenges it is experiencing with loadshedding cannot cope with the evergrowing population. South Africa boasts the 33rd largest economy in the world and the 23rd largest population on the planet, according to The World Bank. “We are the most populated nation south of the equator, home to over fifty-nine million people.
This number is only expected to increase as citizens from poorer countries in the vicinity migrate to look for new homes, work, and other opportunities. The investments in the supply of water to the population can only be done with a long-term vision. “The systems we have cannot cope with the growth of the population. In 1994 Cape Town had 2.384 million residents and water usage of roughly 300 megalitres per day (MLD). This year, we are looking at a population of 4.760 million people in the same area and water usage of 769 MLD per day. That is more than a 100% increase in people and water usage in 28 years with a system that did not grow at the same rate to provide for this increase,” he said. Touching on short-term solutions, Van Kamp said, like having a power inverter at home, having a backup water tank will help to relieve the problem with water supply in the short term. “For domestic users, this solution can offer relief.
If you add a water tank that is topped up by the municipality supply and have a booster pump to the house it will relieve pressure when there are events like ‘watershedding’, or restrictions applied. For industrial water users and especially the essential services like hospitals, the blood bank and frail care centres, he said there’ s a need to look for alternative supplies, like rivers and boreholes. Van Kamp said boreholes have been a source of water for a very long time but despite this, their benefits are still relatively unknown to a lot of business owners. “The most common use of boreholes is as a self-sufficient water source for businesses. A deep hole is drilled down to the water source, the sides of the well are secured, and a pump is installed to draw the water to the surface. To do this you need a geohydrologist to do a study of the likelihood of finding a reliable source of water.
“If you do, you access the source by drilling a borehole, evaluate the yield and water quality, do site preparations like a slab, electrical connection, and water connections, and then install tanks and a water purification system. To be able to run a sustainable system, you need to monitor the borehole level, extraction, tank levels and water quality. It is important to also have a service level agreement in place for the borehole that will include maintenance and online monitoring, ” he said.