Maverick Citizen

DAILY MAVERICK WEBINAR

The Gauteng water crisis: ‘We can’t waste water we simply don’t have’

The Gauteng water crisis: ‘We can’t waste water we simply don’t have’
Finetown residents in Gauteng are forced to stand in queues to fetch water from tankers in Finetown on 23 May 2022 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi)

Telling residents to use less water is no solution to Gauteng’s water crisis, participants told a Daily Maverick webinar. Panel members highlighted challenges of failing infrastructure, a lack of communication and delays in introducing alternative solutions to the dwindling water supply in Gauteng, a province with a rapidly expanding population.

On Tuesday, 25 October, Daily Maverick hosted a webinar to shed light on the fears and challenges of Johannesburg residents whose quality of life has been affected by regular water cuts, water shedding and water shifting.

Sean Phillips, director-general of the national Department of Water and Sanitation, and Ferrial Adam, executive manager of Outa initiative WaterCAN, joined Maverick Citizen editor-in-chief Mark Heywood to discuss the crisis, look at the causes of water shortages and talk about possible solutions.

Phillips, who is also a civil engineer, said the Johannesburg system is strained and if alternative plans such as getting water from Lesotho had been completed on time, there wouldn’t be a need to shut the taps every time infrastructure had to be fixed or there were low reserves.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Government owes Johannesburg Water R636m in unpaid bills while 140 water pipes burst each day

“While the dams might now be full, we don’t know what’s going to happen in a few months. We don’t know if it’s going to be a drought, so we have to be very careful. We can’t allow very high levels of abstraction and then run the risk of the dams running completely dry, a Day Zero type of situation if there’s a severe drought. Severe drought is quite possible. We know that the El Niño event has started again in South Africa, so we have to be very careful,” Phillips said.

The Department of Water had planned for the Lesotho Highlands Water Project to add a lot more water to the integrated Vaal River system. The first phase of the Highlands Project has been completed and the second phase of the project was supposed to be completed in 2019. It is now five years late and will be nine years overdue, according to Phillips.

He said that when the project is eventually completed in 2028, “there will be an additional capacity to treat a lot more water and provide it to the municipalities, if it had not been delayed … which can result in situations where it can take days if not weeks for reservoirs to refill because water continues to be used.

The point is to have the storage capacity [so there is] spare capacity, so that when there is a breakdown in the system that storage capacity can be drawn upon to refill reservoirs so that we can get the system stabilised again quickly,” Phillips said.

Part of a wider problem

Ferial Adam said the water crisis was a snapshot of what was happening in the entire country, which was the decline in quality and quantity of water. She mentioned that the outcry in Johannesburg was because it was an economic hub, but pointed out there were plenty of communities that had never had running water. 

“Tell us and be honest [what’s happening]. We are not told that this is water shedding; most areas have their water shut off at 9pm and [it] come[s] back in the morning. This is a municipal function, but the people don’t know what is going on … The response from Rand Water has been worrying; first, it was finger pointing, them saying it is Johannesburg Water; then saying it’s consumers using too much water,” Adam said.

Adam rejected the idea that consumers were using too much water; adding that this statement did not consider industrial use of water and leaks through worn-out infrastructure. However, she noted that South Africans could heighten the culture of water saving.

“Tankers are becoming the norm when they’re supposed to be a temporary solution. Treat people with respect where you notify them what’s happening. Government structures need to communicate among each other and speak to us, not past us, not above us … There needs to be an integrated discussion so that the entities, civil society and people can find solutions to this.”

She said issues such as the possibility of privatising water entities, water bills, water reports and so forth left the consumer confused and frustrated.

A webinar participant echoed Adam’s comments, by simply saying: “We can’t waste water we simply don’t have.”

Load shedding and leaks

Phillips said the current consumption of around 200 litres per capita per day was high by international standards. This, in turn, would cause a sharp rise in the cost of water. He said 24% of water was lost through leaks in Gauteng on average, which municipalities needed to reduce if there was to be any chance of having a better supply-and-demand relationship.

“Another reason why more difficulties are occurring now than several years back is load shedding is also having a significant effect on the system. The heavy load shedding we have experienced makes it difficult for pumping systems to operate. Load shedding sometimes causes breakdowns which make it harder for the system to recover,” Phillips said.

Phillips said the key thing to be done was to reduce the leaks and build infrastructure that would make the system resilient to breakdowns. Municipalities in Gauteng were building additional reservoirs and pump systems as backups.

Phillips wrapped up by saying that they were adopting campaigns that were used for education in Cape Town as it approached Day Zero. He said using water sparingly along with these other interventions could assist with access to water.

Heywood questioned whether water was considered a crisis on the scale of the electricity issue by authorities, as it had affected hospitals such as Charlotte Maxeke and Rahima Moosa Mother and Child, and had led to schools shutting down and the destruction of businesses.

Adam said that even if the water system were revitalised, consumers would have little hope if the same corrupt administration was going to run it down as it had with the present system.

Participants from Parktown and other parts of the country, including Hammanskraal and Parys, joined the webinar, some mentioning that they had not had consistent running water for months. 

“Let us lay criminal charges against municipal managers and mayors that have allowed the system to get to where it is; having them pay fines with taxpayers’ money doesn’t make sense,” Adam said.

“If we know municipalities are corrupt, let us do away with the middle person and pay directly to contractors. Corruption is a real thing at the municipal level and is destroying it. There are some good people, but there are those rotten people who don’t care if the system works.”

WaterCAN has tested water quality at various public points around the City of Johannesburg. The first batch of testing was conducted at Cosmo City, Chartwell, Diepsloot, Morningside, Linbro Park, Lindhurst, Linksfield, Greenside, Linden, Bromhof and Ruimsig, and revealed that the water was clean.

As part of a comprehensive water quality assessment, the team tested water from 12 taps across the City of Johannesburg, analysing for contaminants such as E. coli, coliform, nitrates, nitrites, phosphates, metals, pH, chlorine and alkalinity.

Adam said though she could vouch for it so far, the water had to be tested continuously to ensure quality.

Phillips echoed Adams’ sentiments, saying the Blue Drop report was due for release in the coming weeks and would give in-depth insights on municipality compliance, pollution, and water quality and quantity in the country. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • andrew farrer says:

    Phase 2 of the Lesotho Highlands 9 years late! Why? because anc/nomvula mokonyane held it up trying to push their captured companies into the mix to syphon off bribes

  • Bob Dubery says:

    Of course we can reduce our useage. And we should. I’ve cut my useage to 1/3 of what it used to be. Nobody in our house stinks. With a little thought, and getting the gardener and the housekeeper on side, we can each significantly reduce our demand for water.

    A good starting point is to start reading your own meter. Remember that this figure excludes any leakages in the municipal system (though it does include some non-billed water as a lot of us are getting 6kl a month for free). Observe that figure, let it sink in, watch the things that drive it up, decide what you can do about them.

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