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