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Water woes: We need to plan now for a secure distribution and supply future in Johannesburg

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Ralf Bittkau is a Democratic Alliance Councillor in the City of Johannesburg and has been a member of the Section 79 Environment and Infrastructure Services Committee (which oversees Joburg Water) in the City of Johannesburg for 15 years. He has worked in the local construction industry for over 50 years.

For Johannesburg to be the home of choice for current and future residents, we need to make sure that there is enough water for everyone. Water outages and roaming water tankers cannot become the new normal — we need to make sure that all residents have access to clean running water at all times.

Previously, we have pointed out the need to address the R200-billion backlog in investment in our crumbling road, power, and water networks. However, in this article, I would like to address the issue of supply that will determine whether Johannesburg will have a water-secure future.

Just as Eskom supplies our city with bulk electricity, Rand Water supplies Johannesburg, Tshwane, and a number of other towns in Gauteng. They use the Vaal River system from as far afield as Sterkfontein Dam and the Lesotho Highlands Water Project from Katse Dam for their supply. 

Joburg Water is the local distributor of water and also looks after our sewage system. On the water supply side, they have over 12,000km of pipes, several reservoirs, and a huge number of valves and water meters to look after. The sewerage system consists of over 11,000km of pipes and five wastewater treatment plants.

Residents experience water outages or low pressure because Rand Water isn’t able to provide Joburg Water with sufficient supply when they lose electricity as the pumps cannot keep the pressure up, and Joburg Water in turn isn’t able to keep their reservoirs full.

Rand Water frequently experiences power issues at the Eikenhof pump station where City Power (which supplies Eikenhof) often has issues with vandalism and cable theft. Eikenhof is the most important pump station for Rand Water as it supplies Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Randfontein with water.

Given how important power is for keeping the water flowing, we need to have 24-hour security at all the substations which supply power to both the Joburg Water and Rand Water pumps. Then we need backup generators to counter load shedding or for when accidents take out the pumps. If malls can provide 24-hour security to protect their power supply and backup generators, then there is no reason why all the others can’t do the same.

However, Rand Water has not been making plans for the continued growth of Johannesburg, and there are no plans to deal with the increased demand for water as new homes and businesses are created. We have been on level 1 water restrictions for over a year now, and this will only increase with time.

Adding to this, climate change and the fact that we live in a water-scarce region means that we need to plan for the future.

The 2016-19 DA government managed to plug some of the maintenance backlogs and succeeded in reducing water leaks from 26% down to 19%, which is a start at saving millions of litres of water.

We know from when Joburg Water tried to drill test boreholes that 95% of them yielded water unfit for human consumption due to leaching of contaminated water from our rivers and from acid mine drainage into groundwater tables. 

So instead of looking down for water, we need to look up. Johannesburg receives massive volumes of rainwater, but most of this is channelled away. We need to make rainwater harvesting the new normal, as this water can be used for watering gardens, flushing toilets, and filling swimming pools, none of which should be using drinking-quality water. 

Then we need to look at large-scale projects of channelling rainwater into large reservoirs which can provide supply during periods of peak demand – an expensive venture which will require all spheres of government to come together.

Just as we have all converted old light bulbs for new LED versions, so we need to look at the water efficiency of devices such as washing machines, dishwashers, taps, and showerheads.

Finally, we need to make sure that all residents of Johannesburg, whether their homes are made of bricks or metal sheets, have piped-in clean drinking water. This is an essential requirement for ensuring a dignified quality of life.

A prosperous future Johannesburg is a water-secure one, and we need to put the right plans in motion now to guarantee this. This will require co-operation from all spheres of government, but must start with City Power, Joburg Water, and Rand Water securing their supply and distribution networks now. DM/MC

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