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Water crisis – Johannesburg is the next Eskom if we don’t act now

Water crisis – Johannesburg is the next Eskom if we don’t act now
Johannesburg mayor Kabelo Gwamanda. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi) | Water coming from a tap in Alexandra on 29 May 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Luba Lesolle) | Minister of Water and Sanitation Senzo Mchunu. (Photo: Gallo Images / OJ Koloti)

Johannesburg’s water supply needs to be recognised for the emergency it is: the country doesn’t have R20-billion for an immediate fix, but putting the right people in place can put a brake to the distress.

In 2007, we didn’t have a name for load shedding, but it started when the city’s east experienced a massive blackout. Since then, the price of decades of underinvestment in energy infrastructure has fallen painfully on us. Sixteen years later, the story continues.

Patronage networks extracted infrastructure investment as they webbed across Eskom and the former Presidency, turning out the lights for two decades. It has hobbled South Africa. 

The parallels with Johannesburg’s flailing water supply are clear. We are at about the 2007 mark but can still turn it around. To get the measure of the water crisis, all you have to do is drive around the city. Its streets are filled with giant holes (separate from the potholes that come from wear and tear). The big holes are left when pipes burst, are repaired in an emergency, and the road is never reinstated. There are about 4,190 pipe bursts a month, according to Johannesburg Water, the entity that runs the 10,957km water system.

The entity says its infrastructure backlog is R20-billion. If you ask politicians how we got here, they all blame each other for decades of bad planning and low capital expenditure.  

The city has been run by the ANC, the DA, a DA-led coalition and now by a minority party coalition with the mayor Kabelo Gwamanda in office on a 1% mandate, which is no mandate. 

Often painted as a panacea for a South Africa tired of a one-party-dominant state, coalitions have been a disaster in Johannesburg. Infrastructure needs long timelines and certainty to work; both are in short supply in the city. The best intentions come to nought. For example, the highly regarded former mayor, Mpho Phalatse, cut the ribbon on a R45-million reservoir in Lenasia South in 2022, but it was still not working this week. (See Onke Ngcuka’s report here).

It’s no longer about the water, like Eskom was no longer about the electricity through the years of capture.

You can see the creeping patterns similar to what happened in Eskom. Areas like Lenasia South, the belt of sites like Coronationville, Crosby, Claremont, Melville, parts of Auckland Park, Westdene and South Hills are resigned to living from water bottles and filling up at water tankers or council-supplied JoJo tanks.

If you extrapolate to the rest of the country, water is already the new Eskom. In this survey of Daily Maverick readers, reported by Michelle Banda late in 2022, more than half experienced a water outage. Our audience tends to be the middle classes in cities, but watch SABC or social media and there are provinces like Limpopo where the taps have been driest for longer. According to reports, Polokwane’s capital is often out of water.

The government has been warned about this for the past 10 years, as Julia Evans reported here.

In 2006, after repeated Eskom red lights that energy security was declining, then president Thabo Mbeki said there was no crisis

Rand Water and Johannesburg Water talk down a supply crisis in the city, blaming load shedding or isolated factors like a burst here, a reservoir failure there or a failed treatment or pumping plant elsewhere. Yet this week must show that the crisis is now endemic. Up to 26 September, Johannesburg Water’s system updates show that many reservoirs remain at critical or low supply. Water comes on, then goes off for millions of residents. Daily Maverick reported on the city’s Day Zero a year ago; now it’s Day Sub-Zero.

The boards of Johannesburg Water and Rand Water are full of underqualified cadres, consultants and cronies. Engineers are thin on the ground.

Water Affairs Minister Senzo Mchunu confirmed to Naledi Sikakhane and Lerato Mutsila that there is now water “load shifting” or water shedding. While denied, there is a supply problem even with full dams – infrastructure at treatment and pumping plants is decaying.  

Mchunu has stepped into the Gauteng water crisis (Tshwane and Ekurhuleni have the same problems) because protests are growing, and the local politicians are constantly fighting internecine coalition battles and don’t have their eyes on the ball. 

The three cities still make up the highest contribution to GDP and are the economic basket of South Africa. Without water, it all grinds to a halt. More importantly, schools close, people get ill, cholera can spread, and life cannot continue without water. 

No quick fix

Johannesburg’s water supply needs to be recognised for the emergency it is: the country doesn’t have R20-billion for an immediate fix, but putting the right people in place can put a brake to the distress. Collecting debt owed to the city by the government can fill more than a hole or two. 

The boards of Johannesburg Water (the municipal supplier) and Rand Water (the bulk supplier) are full of underqualified cadres, consultants and cronies. Engineers are thin on the ground. I could only spot up to two in desktop research; none had run a complex water utility with the requisite experience or skill. 

Neither entity has responded to months of requests from Daily Maverick for detailed profiles of board members. Both utilities have become repurposed into contract machines where tenders are churned out to suppliers who notch up serial and multiyear delays in completion. Johannesburg Water’s latest report, for example, details how it underperformed in all service delivery metrics but overperformed only in how many companies it empowered with contracts. It’s no longer about the water, like Eskom was no longer about the electricity through the years of capture. 

Read Daily Maverick’s coverage of water shortages

Mchunu could start by changing the boards and insisting on skills audits at Rand Water. He knows there’s a problem with the most crucial supplier in the country. Ultimately, though, Johannesburg’s government is so otherwise engaged that it is going to be up to the people to demand much greater accountability. And to remember, as Trevor Manuel eloquently reminded us at a talk at the Apartheid Museum on Heritage Day: our heritage is resistance. 

Mark Heywood set out some great ideas from the Johannesburg Crisis Forum here. The forum meets again on 7 October. DM us for details at [email protected]. DM

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  • Visited Grahamstown a few months back, and there, the water system has already totally collapsed. Students rely on water bottles and expensive JoJo tanks. Toilets are rendered non functional, posing a massive health risk. A portend of what lies ahead for Joburg and SA…

    • Confucious Says says:

      Isn’t despicable how the government have ruined GHT?! Yet it just continues. I hear that the status quo is preferred because all of the bungling allows political scores to be settled without consequences. Politics in GHT has nothing to do with serving the citizens. Even the schools rely on boreholes now. It is far from the traditional student utopia it once was. Very saddening to those that came through that educational system…. Just another town outside the major metros that has crumbled.

  • John Smythe says:

    Corruption, cadre deployment, patronage, cronyism and incompetence has become the bedrock of ANC led provinces and municipalities. Welcome to Africa. Goodbye foreign and local investment. It will take the DA (if the sheep become smarter) years to undo the tight knot of ANC stupidity and lack of foresight. So, don’t expect any miracles.

  • Wilhelm Boshoff says:

    Unfortunately things will get much worse as the system of governance has collapsed in Johannesburg and there is no one who can fix it. For the next decade or two today will most certainly be better than tomorrow.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    “If you extrapolate to the rest of the country, water is already the new Eskom.”

    Please be so good as to say “.. the rest of the country (barring the Western Cape)” whenever reporting on the total stuff up THE USELESS, CORRUPT AND TOTALLY IGNORANT ANC have made wherever they have ‘ruled’. Thanks.

    • Julian Chandler says:

      Wasn’t it Cape Town that had dry taps, and harsh water restrictions just a few years ago?

      • Denise Smit says:

        No, we did not have dry taps, there were restrictions under Mayor Patricia de Lille because of the severe drought, and the measures had to be put in place to prevent day zero. This is a success story not a failure story. The rest of the country should have learnt from it. You did not state in the article that the water boards in Gauteng blame the consumers for over usage. They are unfortunately deflection the problem. There is more than enough water but neglegted infrastructure to bring the water to the consumers. Denise Smit

        • Anon i Mouse says:

          Cyril the squirrel will blame apartheid, using the word 20 times in a 3 minute speech on how there are no qualified persons to sort it out. It will have nothing to do with 33 years of bad governance of course.

      • Denise Smit says:

        Skill audits must be done on all government and municipal employees to see if they are fit for purpose. Denise Smit

      • Steve Davidson says:

        It was also Cape Town’s Khayelitsha ‘informal settlement’ (what a laughable name) that in 2011 ‘only’ had 400 000 economic refugees from the ANC’s disgraceful rule in the Eastern Cape, which has apparently ballooned to 2.4 million now. Heaven only knows what the total number is in the WC if you count all of them. And the CoCT and Western Cape government still manage to deal with it, of course at the ratepayers’ expense, very successfully, and still get criticised. Oh, and yes, Day Zero almost happened in 2018 but thanks once again to the CoCT and WC and of course the long-suffering locals, things worked out OK. But with the continuing influx from said EC, heaven only knows what will happen the next time.

    • Richard Baker says:

      Agreed Steve-DM and it’s brave and inquisitive team are amazing but for some reason they just cannot bring themselves to give the DA any credit or validation in what they do and have achieved against all odds-having to literally fight the ANC every step of the way.
      Sure the DA is clumsy in its approach and really needs to reform further to gain more traction but its attempts to create a competent new grouping must be supported.
      Chris Pappas has created a stir of note even amongst the wider population and if such as he and others like him who truly love South Africa can only form a new beginning then there is hope.
      The converse is true-with the ANC in power the country(with possible exception of the Cape)is doomed to accelerate its slide to oblivion.
      DM-please be objective and even-handed in your reporting on this-
      2024 is last chance saloon!!

      • Steve Davidson says:

        Well said. Having family in Howick, I know what a good job he’s doing. And when I look at the mix of the Springbok rugby team, I see the hopeful future of SA, but unfortunately it’s going to take a long time to get to that level at a grassroots level.

    • Iam Fedup says:

      Steve Davidson, while I agree with some of your thoughts regarding the ANC’s imbecilic and crippling organizational abilities, the DA and, to a lesser degree the new alliance, have done nothing visible to persuade the less sophisticated citizens of SA to vote out this disgusting regime. The election is their’s for the taking, but I have seen precisely nothing. They have not found alternative ways to communicate with the general population by avoiding the propagandist media. I see no posters, they’ve hired no advertising companies, they refuse to use behavioural and psychological principles, don’t share stories of despair, and their social media strategies are laughable. For example, Churchill printed 10m brochures, used some planes and threw them out the sky so people could see the reality of their lives under Nazism. With months to go to possibly the most important election in our history, they dither. Organisations like OUTA have done more than the whole party with the billions donated to it by businesses. It’s easy to get votes from educated Capetonians. But what are they doing elsewhere?

      • Steve Davidson says:

        Continuing on from Richard’s comment above yours, I think all the DA can do – apart from getting the zulu-speaking Chris Pappas’s of the world into local government – is to carry on doing a fantastic job in the Western Cape and Cape Town – and hope the message gets through to the Eastern Cape in the first place from the, what, 3 million Xhosas, down here and then slowly spread into the rest of the country. But I won’t hold my breath in the ‘neo-Apartheid’ world of SA, as there is too much history and reverse racism to deal with.

      • Bradley Welcome says:

        Bravo 👏, well said. The DA need to expand their reach to the “masses” for whom daily life is a struggle and who do not have the luxury of reviewing DM and similar publications at leisure. Very little visible campaigning from the DA to reach and sway the ruling party’s power base.

        • Denise Smit says:

          Steve, Bradly and Im Fedup, can you provide a better option than the DA. Please give us this info. You are talking ANC/EFF propaganda. Denise Smit

    • Alan Watkins says:

      The difference between electricity and water is that electricity is a national good, and all feel the pain of ANC and Eskom’s bungling, whereas water is a local good where only local water users feel the pain of local politicians bungling. Yes, Cape Town had a water shortage a few years ago, the dams were empty and the taps were restricted but never ran dry. Capable politicians and water functionaries made the best of a bad situation; in Cape Town we all felt it but no one else in the country. In Gauteng and KZN, the dams are full but the pipes are leaking and the taps are dry.

  • Thanks for a great article. There is an even larger crisis that is decades in the making. Gauteng’s demand for water exceeds its bulk supply. The Lesotho Highlands next phase was delayed for years, and is way over its planned implementation date. Leaky pipes and old infrastructure are even less efficient when there is no water to fill them.

    • Ben Harper says:

      There’s plenty of supply, the dams are full, it’s the infrastructure to deliver the water to the consumer that has collapsed like everything else the anc has touched

  • Cornay Bester says:

    Electricity. Water. Without these freedom cannot survive.

  • A.K.A. Fred says:

    Time and time again, when I read articles like this, I ask myself “how did we get here when we HAVE people who can identify a problem before it’s a crisis, can plan astutely, can manage implementation and can manage money? “. Morons can do none of these things. The average ANC office bearer or politician comes to the table with nothing (absolutely nothing) to offer. But that doesn’t matter to them because it’s what they can embezzle that counts. Bluntly, the majority of black voters get what they vote for (90% black population so it’s a fact) and their vote won’t change until the hardship increases even more. Government’s grant extension merely serves to protect the black vote. Now the money is running out…… Please black people, vote differently for just 1 election. What’s the worst that can happen? Five wasted years? Appears a whole lot better than the 30 wasted years to date.

  • Gerrie Brink says:

    Please note that I agree with all of the comments, but looking at it from a different angle… As true and sad as this might be, we can all still do our part in using less water. Despite the fact that we have losses in bulk infrastructure of more than 37%, there are still measured losses in excess off 40% after municipal meters (measured over more than 500 commercial and industrial properties), meaning we have just as big a responsibility to do something about it as government. If we all optimise our own demand, the strain on the system is less and the supply/demand gap might shrink a bit. This is the quickest, easiest and cheapest way to have an impact right now, without much planning or big budget. Let us first do what is in our power, and only then point fingers. #strongertogether #surpluswater2025

    • Hello There says:

      Of course, you can…
      You can also eat less, travel less, use less energy (which you already do).
      Eventually, you can go into hibernation…
      If that is the future envisioned for South Africa, it’s government is on track to achieving it.

    • virginia crawford says:

      Thank you for that reminder. Chaos, corruption caused by incompetent cadres, yes. But people really do waste water: on my morning walks I see puddles of water, sometimes streams, from unnecessary irrigation systems that come on even when it’s raining: driveways being ” washed” , leaking taps and toilets in public places. Advice like that given in CT during the drought on how to save water should be everywhere. Wasting water is short-sighted and stupid given that rainfall is decreasing in many parts of the world.

  • Rory Macnamara says:

    this is what happens when politicians do not put the rate payers first. so use their salaries to start resolving the water crisis until it is paid off. R20Billion! that should humble politicians somewaht

  • Julian Chandler says:

    I’ve been warning people about impending water shortages for years, but ostriches bury their heads.
    We installed a Jojo mitigation tank system, pump and filters, which can run off our generator.
    When (not if) the water goes off, we have approximately 8 weeks of water stored on site at home.
    In a kleptocracy like SA, you have to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
    It’s not as expensive as you’d think. At least, not until it becomes a necessity, and everyone wants it…

    • Ben Harper says:

      It’s not a matter of a water shortage, there is no shortage, it’s the collapsed infrastructure that can’t deliver the water to the consumer

  • John Kannemeyer says:

    Does this mean the residents of Johannesburg need to start addressing these issue by withholding rates to get focus from the Municipality and local government? The only stick the useless cadres understand is money, let’s hope the outcome of the court case in KZN with the eThekwini Rates boycott is in favour of the residents.

  • Cedric de Beer says:

    The corporatisation of service delivery is the start of the problem: Jhb Water, City Power, Pikitup, JRA. Full of expensive CEOs and Boards, and needing to contract out the work because they don’t have the skills, and this supply chain is wide open to corruption and abuse. It also allows the Council to point fingers at others rather than taking full responsibility.

    In the past a City Engineer was responsible for all these services, and controlled the budget necessary to maintain old infrastructure and develop new services. So you would not have those holes dug by Joburg Water and left to JRA to repair (the don’t). The system is a disaster, and is exacerbated by cadre deployment, incompetence and corruption.
    These “companies”should be reabsorbed so that the Councillors and the employees of the council are clearly responsible, and all those excess salaries can be spent on services.

    • Ben Harper says:

      It’s not corporatisation, it plain and simple state capture and cadre deployment with the aim to plunder taxpayers money and deliver nothing – proudly brought to you by the anc

    • Steve Davidson says:

      Doesn’t matter how you organise it. If you’ve got crooks controlling the place then you’re stuffed. I assume you’re not in the Cape? If not, maybe maak ‘n draai hier and come see how things should be organised. Having been back to live in England a couple of times in the last 20 years, I can tell you that CoCT outshine a lot of their councils! Absolutely excellent when you consider the grief they have to put up with from that bunch of mamparras in the ANC.

  • Timothy Van Blerck says:

    Now is the time to order your jojo tank and booster pump before the rush..and connect it to your solar powered inverter system

  • Penny Philip says:

    Agree 100% If JHB residents don’t start putting pressure on this municipality we will slide into more of a mess.

  • Mark Wade says:

    Moletsi Mbeki made it quite clear a few weeks ago that it’s not money that’s the problem – with government departments, provinces, municipalities and SOEs – but the management of those entities. Cadre deployment, tenderpreneuring, incompetence & corruption have destroyed all public services and infrastructure.

  • Denise Robinson says:

    It seems to me Gautengers have a clear choice
    a) Move to Cape Town wher the Mayor, his Mayoral committee, and professional (non-cadre) administration think plan and act with a 40-year timeframe in mind, or
    b) Vote for his party the DA come 2024, forgettng all the distractions of admittedly well-resented independents and startups, who may if lucky soak up 50-80K votes to obtain one seat in 400 with 0,25% speaking time in Parliament.

  • Piet Scott says:

    I’m going to play devil’s advocate here: What if all of this, as Anthea Jeffery suggests, presents the final stages of a long term strategy to simply collapse SOEs and municipal services as part of the ANC’s not-so-secret radical economic transformation plan? To create a general sense of hopelessness and despair among a weary electorate in preparation for a socialist take-over? That self-enrichment, corruption and patronage are not the ends in themselves that we think they are, but simply the perks that loyal cadres are entitled to for preparing the ground for a inevitable transition to socialism? What if the “good cop” faction of the ANC are simply that? Pretending to be pro-investment, lulling everyone into a false sense of hope, while buying time? As Anthea said, the socialist dream did not die with collapse of communism in 1990. True believers simply concluded that the collapse was due to incorrect implementation. But the white-anting of the West and all it represents continues as before.

  • mike muller says:

    Michelle Banda’s linked 2022 article showed that Gauteng’s problems were mainly short interruptions due to repairs, often poorly done. The real supply failures have been in small towns and rural areas. So DM shouldn’t distract from the BIG problems facing people in the rest of the country.

    But it’s also important to emphasise the real challenge facing Gauteng: Since 2004 when Lesotho’s Mohale Dam was completed, the amount of water available has stayed the same while the province’s population has almost doubled.

    SAME AMOUNT OF WATER, TWICE THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE! GET IT?!?

    And that’s where we are until Lesotho Highlands Phase 2 is complete, 2028 at earliest.

    We can discuss why that delay happened (hint: MAMA distrACTION played a leading role) but the issue is what to do now.

    In 2019, Premier Makhura asked how to avoid a water crisis. Get the report by searching online for:
    GCRO Water_Security_Perspective 2019.

    Sure, we must improve water management, from Rand Water to each individual household tap. But Rand is actually supplying as much water as they are allowed to. So we need active management by the municipalities, supported by citizens.

    We must be told regularly (every month?) how water is shared between different communities, who gets how much, how much is ‘lost’ and whether our use is within safe limits. That requires metering, billing and good network management (fix leaks quickly!). It’s not rocket science, just hard work.

  • Brian Doyle says:

    When you appoint unqualified idiots who believe there was no problem as when they opened a tap water came out. The ANC unfortunately appointed them or caused them to be appointed via BEE ruling. These incompetents do not understand the complexity of the ageing water infrastructure and the load on it with a growing population and increased housing. It maybe too late unless vast amounts of money are funneled into sorting out the problem, but raises another risk, corruption, with the amount of money that would be in play

  • Barbra Buys says:

    The crisis is due to lack of care /response to leaks reported. A fire hydrant in front of my property in Sandton has been leaking (pouring) for 4 and a half YEARS. It has been reported umpteen times, all to no avail. Imagine how many millions of liters have literally gone down the drain, and then know that there are countless other similar leaks…

  • Rob Wilson says:

    Is there any competence at any level in the ANC? It does not take a rocket scientist to realise that no complex infrastructure in the world can operate or grow without a highly proficient planning and management team. Maintenance and replacement is one thing, but uncontrolled demand change is quite another, and it seems to have completely missed these people that you cannot force more water through a system just because a lot more people decided to settle there. As an engineer I am aware of the technical challenges, but it seems like all of the others have been discarded as well. Now its just the cadres, who are expert at nothing at all.

  • Michael Clark says:

    It’s important (for me) that we always exclude the DA Western Cape from these sweeping statements that the ANC has destroyed the entire country. Not true, we have 160,000 people moving here because the DA does not steal, lie or cheat the poor and manages the province like a real successful business.

  • Peter Merrington says:

    Entropy.

  • Peter Merrington says:

    Entropy

  • hudlestons says:

    If Phalatse had been allowed to finish projects properly, we would not be in such a mess. Rand Water used to be more independent, but now the ANC government is yanking its strings. We have no days with water all day. water shedding has become a reality. No water after 9 pm. Businesses are screwed!

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