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Joburg’s water crisis a harbinger of a potential complete crash of our economic hub’s infrastructure


Prof Karen von Veh is Professor Emeritus in the Visual Art Department at the University of Johannesburg.

Johannesburg is the business hub of South Africa and the most densely populated area in the country, yet this failure to supply basic human needs (fresh water is a human right after all) is not yet being taken seriously enough to keep our economic capital functioning.

This week one of my neighbours on our community WhatsApp group wrote: “I was woken to the sound of a toilet cistern filling. Bit desperate when that’s the best sound in the last three weeks.”

We live in the Johannesburg suburb of Melville/Auckland Park on a hill, on which my house happens to be the highest. This means that when there is a water outage my water is the first to go and the last to come back.

The practical effect of this is that I (and my neighbours) have not had continuous running water for over six weeks now and for nearly 10 days recently that diminished to no water at all.

We had constant messages sent to us from Johannesburg Water (via our ward councillor) that the levels were critically low in the Hursthill and Brixton reservoirs and we must use less water. What is less than nothing?

The water outages began before this, however, as month after month for most of this year we would be hit by one or two days a week where our water diminished, often to nothing, prompting one of our street WhatsApp members to say “here we go again” every time the water petered out.

No coherent explanations given, no apparent move to ameliorate the situation. I am sure everyone remembers the time last year (June 2021) when we also had lengthy water outages. They affected the Helen Joseph and Rahima Moosa Hospitals so badly that Gift of the Givers was “granted permission” by the Gauteng Provincial Health Department to dig boreholes for both hospitals.

One wonders why neither Johannesburg Municipality, nor Johannesburg Water, was taking responsibility for this crisis, nor doing anything to help.

My biggest anxiety, as a resident in a high-lying area, was exacerbated on 14 October by the following message from Rand Water (which supplies water to Johannesburg):

Media Statement: Worsening Water Consumption:

“The matter of high-water consumption and various call-to-action requests to our municipalities and consumers to use sparingly have relevance.

“Since the beginning of spring, Rand Water’s bulk water provision to municipalities has increased from an average of 4,300 million liters (sic) of water a day to 4,900 million liters (sic) of water a day… To safeguard the integrity of the system and to ensure continued water supply, Rand Water imposed water supply reduction of 30% so that there is still enough water in the reservoirs to mitigate, amongst others, intermittent supply… To stabilise and avoid the emptying of the reservoirs and complete system crash, Rand Water will further apply the flow control management of its reservoirs. This measure will ensure that Rand Water takes full control of water supply and no longer relies on the consumers to reduce consumption.”

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The message from Rand Water indicates that they are already throttling our water supply in Johannesburg by 30% because we are “using too much”. It also appears to obfuscate that they are absolving themselves from taking any responsibility for the water outages by placing the blame squarely on the population for whom they are supposed to be providing a basic service.

This is a population that has grown exponentially in the last few years without any planning or provision being made for them by City of Joburg management.

My anxiety lies in the fact that even when the water is not being restricted I am not getting any (or only getting a few hours of running water in my home). The further reduction in source supply means it will be used up by the lower-lying areas faster, so I and my neighbours will not get any reliable water supply at all for the foreseeable future.

Following the above warning, on Saturday 15 October, Rand Water sent out a “Water Shedding” notice alerting residents of Johannesburg to water cut-offs “every evening after 8pm until further notice”.

Then, on Sunday 16 October Johannesburg Water sent out a media statement to Joburg residents with the heading “Rand Water’s load shift crashes Johannesburg Water’s Commando system”, in effect rendering 16 suburbs entirely without water for the foreseeable future.

This does not augur well for the future if Rand Water takes over the management of our water. The rapid escalation of the water disaster is disturbing, not least because it still seems to be only locally reported, unlike the imminence of “Day Zero” in the Cape which made international news.

We have seemingly reached day zero in parts of Johannesburg already and my water woes are shared by many in this area. I have neighbours in Westdene who have not had a constant supply of water for the whole year, echoing the plight of other parts of the country such as areas of Durban and Makhanda in the Eastern Cape, for example. A friend of mine living in Makhanda says she only gets water in her taps every third day. This has been her experience for years now.

Johannesburg is the business hub of South Africa and the most densely populated area in the country, yet this failure to supply basic human needs (fresh water is a human right after all) is not yet being taken seriously enough to keep our economic capital functioning.

It is my understanding that there is plenty of water in the Vaal Dam from whence our water comes. We had record rains last year and when I checked the dam levels online this week the Vaal dam was at 94%. It might have been hot, but rain is forecast and we are not in a drought.

If there is water at source it suggests that the problems lie in the management and maintenance of the water pumping stations, the reservoirs, and Rand Water itself, as well as a lack of foresight and planning.

It now appears that the water infrastructure has not been maintained nor upgraded for the last 28 years. In the meantime, planning permissions for building in Johannesburg have been doled out with impunity by the City of Johannesburg Planning Department for the densification of suburbs in which the infrastructure is clearly unable to supply basic amenities.

These failures are harbingers of the complete collapse of our infrastructure, particularly as water shedding is intersecting with electrical blackouts (with the same root cause).

Professor Anthony Turton from the Centre for Environmental Management at UFS was talking to Bongani Bingwa on Radio 702 on Monday 17 October and warned us that we are now “dangerously close to total systemic failure in South Africa”.

The accumulation of mismanagement and neglect is set to cripple the economy leaving us on the verge of becoming a second Zimbabwe. How bad must things get before someone is held accountable and something is done to remedy the situation? DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Andrew C says:

    The level of incompetence is staggering. We are at a point where we need to ignore government and just do things ourselves.

  • mike muller says:

    The good news is that there can’t be a complete collapse of South Africa’s water system because, fortunately, there isn’t one.

    The difference between electricity and water is that the former is all dependent on ESKOM’s centralised system while water arrives from a variety of different weather and river systems and is captured and distributed through many different engineered systems.

    The IVRS (Integrated Vaal River System) is the biggest of those engineered systems which is why it needs (and is getting) more attention than others.

    But even if the IVRS is properly managed, there is no guarantee that water will get to your household because that depends on many, smaller, municipal sub-systems. So while many parts of Johannesburg continue to enjoy reliable water services (and water was the service which had the highest user satisfaction – 87% in Joburg, 84% in Gauteng as a whole*) there are parts of the city that suffer long running problems, the old inner west suburbs in particular.

    That is deeply frustrating for local residents but not evidence of a city-wide system collapse let alone a national collapse. The real water supply challenge is for people in smaller towns and rural areas who are dependent on public supplies provided, if at all, by weak (to be polite) municipalities.

    More good news: it will rain, garden watering will reduce, and more water will come through the taps.

    * See the GCRO’s 2020/21 QUality of life survey overview – links not allowed here

  • Sue Malcomess says:

    Well said but the situation is terrifying and annoying. Without shame they blame residents when it is their ineptitude. What will it take to turn things around?

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