South Africa


Why Johannesburg’s taps keep running dry — An expert explains

Why Johannesburg’s taps keep running dry — An expert explains
Illustrative image: Johannesburg Water Crisis (Photos: Rawpixel | Kabelo Mokoena | Wikipedia | Supplied)

The Conversation Africa asked geography professor Craig Sheridan, director of the Centre in Water Research and Development at the University of the Witwatersrand, why the water crisis is getting worse in South Africa’s biggest city.

Since the latter part of 2023, hardly a week has gone by without some residents of Johannesburg, South Africa’s commercial capital, losing their water supply. Notices of planned outages from the local water authority are a common occurrence. Unplanned water shutdowns also happen regularly.

The entire city has been affected — shanty towns, less affluent and more affluent parts of the city.

The Conversation Africa asked geography professor Craig Sheridan, director of the Centre in Water Research and Development at the University of the Witwatersrand, what’s gone wrong:

Why don’t Johannesburg citizens have enough water?

The water allocation for each province is based on the amount available in the dams (which must also supply our future needs) and the number of people in that province. Currently the Vaal Dam is 70% full.

Rand Water — the area’s bulk water supplier — buys the water from the Department of Water and Sanitation, which will only sell a certain amount to it. Rand Water takes water mainly from the Vaal Dam – the region’s biggest — and treats it to potable quality. It then sells the water to Johannesburg and Pretoria (and other cities and towns) that are in Gauteng, the smallest of South Africa’s nine provinces and its industrial heartland.

The cities sell the water to their residents through their distribution systems.

Rand Water is not allowed to supply more than the amount set by the Department of Water and Sanitation. But there is a mismatch between what’s allocated by the national government and what’s needed on the ground. This is because the national government takes into consideration future needs.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘We want water in our taps’ — Durban residents vent their ire at top eThekwini officials

Why can’t new dams be built to supply more water?

This is the plan. But the next phase (Phase 2) of the Lesotho Highlands Scheme is eight years behind schedule. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project is a multinational project to provide water to the Gauteng region of South Africa and to generate hydro-electricity for Lesotho. Work on the dam design started in 2017, and tender design was completed during 2020. Construction is expected to be completed, with commissioning expected in 2028.

This eight-year delay roughly coincided with a period during which the population of Gauteng grew from 12 million to 15.1 million people. In 2023 the province had the same amount of water storage for a population that had grown by more than 3 million people (or 25%), because the dam was not built.

There is now substantially less water for everyone in the province, including residents of Johannesburg.

Why are Joburg residents struggling to get water?

The City of Johannesburg is running its finances poorly. The maintenance bill for water infrastructure is R2-billion ($105-million) per year, but only R1-billion ($52-million) is allocated. Maintenance needs are spiralling out of control. The City bills residents for rates, water, electricity, sewage and other services. However, the funds received are not ring-fenced. Other projects are competing for the same pot of money.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Water crisis – Johannesburg is the next Eskom if we don’t act now

Because the infrastructure is ageing (for example, in the suburb of Parkwood, the infrastructure is older than 70 years), the pipes rust and break. When they break, they leak, sometimes releasing very large quantities of water, before they are repaired. When the City responds to requests by residents for repairs, the response, if it comes, is often too little and the job is poorly done. There is little oversight or accountability by the City to ensure the contractors have done the job correctly and the repairs often do not last long.

Also, 15 million people are relying on a system designed for far fewer people. When everyone starts to use water, there just isn’t enough to go around.

There is also an additional factor in this discussion: non-revenue water. This is the term used for water that’s unbilled by the City — in other words, free water, unauthorised consumption or water lost due to leakages. This is water that is supplied by Rand Water, but is essentially “financially lost”.

In South Africa, the government gives a free basic allowance of 6,000 litres per month to every household.

Gauteng has non-revenue water of 49.2% (pages 25 to 27) – in other words, almost half the water that’s supplied to the cities in the province cannot be charged for (by the cities) because it forms part of the basic allowance, is lost through leaks or is stolen. By comparison, Denmark has non-revenue water of about 7%. Chile, also a country with variable climate, has urban non-revenue water of about 32%.

Residents get water from a government truck at Tsakane informal settlement in Gauteng on 21 October 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / OJ Koloti)

Of the non-revenue water, the leakage portion for Gauteng is half. In other words, for every four litres provided to Gauteng by Rand Water, one litre is wasted through leakage (the City’s fault) and one litre is either given away for free (public good), stolen (the public’s fault), or not accounted for (much harder to allocate blame). This means only half of what is provided can be charged for.

Now to water usage. The average consumption in Gauteng is 279 litres per person per day. This is:

  • more than 60% greater than the global average
  • the highest of any province
  • 27% more than the country average.

Gauteng citizens use too much, the cities waste way too much and there is too much theft of drinking water. The social pact is breaking down as a consequence. This is indicated by the number of civic action groups forming, for example WaterCAN.

To restore this pact, the City needs to focus on non-revenue water, by allocating the correct and appropriate maintenance spend to fix and even renew the water network. At the same time citizens need to seriously consider their own water usage and how to reduce it. 

The citizens of Cape Town were forced to face the possibility of the taps running dry permanently in 2018 during a five-year drought. Water consumption was drastically limited, forcing people to become very water conscious.

This has to become the new normal if there is to be uninterrupted water supply.

This story was first published in The Conversation.

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Geoff Coles says:

    I don’t see a free 6kl allowance from Cape Town Metro

  • Steve Davidson says:

    Thank heaven we live in Cape Town, despite our water being taken by the 2.5 million Eastern Cape economic refugees in Khayelitsha, and all the other ‘informal settlements’ aka squatter camps, running away from the ANC’s useless, corrupt rule.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Where did these 3 million come from, and do they pay for water? The usual incompetence when it comes to maintenance and billing. Seems that Johannesburg might slowly die from a 1000 cuts. The forest of For Sale signs tell a story.

    • Is there hope South Africa? says:

      People move to where they think there are job opportunities or a better way of life. Who knows where the 3 million come from, but I bet many are migrants (whether they are legal or illegal….)
      It’s not just the people with houses that will be moving to the W Cape. I give it 5 – 10 years and then the problems you see in Gauteng will have shifted south.

  • Iam Fedup says:

    I don’t need an esteemed professor and expert to tell me the root causes of water shortages. It’s just sheer incompetence and thievery from the fools who govern us. According to my councilor, Daniel Schay, at any one point in time, Johannesburg has around 450 callouts to deal with every day.

  • Charles Butcher says:

    Anc pilicy of CONTROL by forcing people to buy water which is the exact oppoof what rural society believes as the RAIN IS FREE

    • Greeff Kotzé says:

      But it doesn’t always get to where it needs to be, for free. Dense city living requires investment in, and maintenance of, infrastructure.

      Also, it’s too easy to waste stuff when it doesn’t have a direct cost to you. Our water resources are limited and should be used sparingly by EVERYONE. Some people don’t consider the greater good, so you have to motivate them to act out of self-interest.

  • Rae Earl says:

    The ANC is incompetent, corrupt to the core, and is looting wherever it finds the opportunity to do so. How much of our water expense allocations and funding, are being syphoned off by this mob? The situation is no different in all our SOE’s which is why the imminent collapse in all of them is due to the governing party holding the reins.

  • Stephen Mcbride says:

    This just points to lack of planning. As with electricity two power stations were commissioned to be built AFTER we ran out.
    Lesotho water project AFTER we noticed that we have not enough water.
    People start saving for their new car AFTER they notice problems with the old.
    Any actuary will be able to give a fairly accurate prediction as to how many people there will be in the future and how much water/sanitation/electricity/refuse removal etc we will need and we need to start training building for it NOW not when we run out so that if 2 million extra refugees come we have extra capacity.
    Money spent on repairs is never lost and pays for itself. As is training people to make these repairs. Again you need to have a slight excess of trained people going around making these repairs.
    Training people to prosecute those who abuse the service cost money that looks like money down the drain but saves in the long run. The aim is that they should be so vigilant that they should make no arrests because no transgressions.
    Dams are not environmentally friendly and use of valuable space even though the serve important purpose. But we use potable water to flush our toilets! In 4 days of rain I filled 7000 litres of tanks and 48 000 litre pool. If a had non evaporation storage this would be able to flush my toilets, do my washing and water my garden for a year. So why not make underground water tanks for stuff we do not need potable water for providing meaningful employment not grants

  • Francois Smith says:

    The ANC touched the water supply and it is gone! Easy as that. It is like Eskom, the schooling system, public health care, the police, the army, the parliament building, the border, the rand, the….

  • Joe Soap says:

    The story does not take Sterkfontein into account which feeds in to the Vaal dam. Sterkfontein almost permanently 100 % full. Vaaldam is kept at lower levels as it is shallow with high evaporation rates. The water shortage in Gauteng is artificial.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    The ANC is the cause of every single problem we see in South Africa today.

    You can help save our country for everyone.

    Vote DA.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    The header should be “ why ANC led Municipalities taps run dry!” Inspite of good rainfalls, floods and dams that are full!

    • Peter Smith says:

      Jane, we have the same issues in Tshwane with the DA running it since 2016. Treasury set guidelines for capital expenditure, maintenance, non-revenue water and electricity. Since 2016, the CoT is spent a total of R35bn less than the guidelines on capital and R30bn less on maintenance. They have also never done an asset audit to determine the condition of assets. It is therefore no surprise that the CoT is now technically bankrupt. They are losing R6bn per year on water and electricity that is not billed. In the past, they would clean and re-use waste water but now nothing is working. And this is the DA – they have no skills and no competence among the 214 councillors of which 60 are in debt to CoT as they have not paid their own bills, rates and taxes. The next qualified audit is expected this week.

  • P C Hem says:

    Yep, the infrastructure of South Africa is collapsing, I could tell you why but it is top secret. Anyway the answer is rainwater.

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