# 1 Gauteng
This is the epicentre of South Africa's water crisis. Johannesburg, Tshwane, Ekurhuleni and the surrounding economic heartland have intermittent supply in some areas and dry taps for weeks in others. Rand Water has now proposed a “water supply reduction" of 30% “to avoid a complete system crash". The restriction will stay in place until “the system recovers". Given the state of water infrastructure, this could quite possibly be never.
Prof Anthony Turton, of the University of the Free State Centre for Environmental Management, says Johannesburg is experiencing the perfect storm. “On the one hand, it has the country's most profound extent of institutional failure. On the other, it has the most acute need for water, given that Johannesburg sustains about 40% of the national economy."
# 2 Durban (eThekwini)
Durban is also dealing with institutional collapse and ailing infrastructure. Intermittent water supply and rationing have become part of life.
“Umgeni Water is the bulk service provider in Durban," says Turton. “Water is a finite resource; all water users are allocated a licence for a certain volume to ensure enough to go around. The department gave Umgeni a directive to reduce production because it exceeded its licence allocation. Less water means more rolling cuts. You cannot avoid it."
But it's the city's sewerage problem that hogs the headlines. Untreated sewage spilling into the ocean has caused such severe pollution that the water is deemed unsafe to swim in. All the city's famous beaches have lost their blue flag status. The mayor ascribes the problems to “pump failure, load-shedding, vandalism or poor network infrastructure".
# 3 Gqeberha (Nelson Mandela Bay)
It's the same story here. Intermittent water supply is ascribed mainly to decaying infrastructure and poor maintenance. However, the city has also been affected by severe drought conditions since 2015, exacerbating the pressure on water supplies. Polluted tap water is a recurring issue.
What has led to the crisis?
# 4 Institutional collapse
The overarching theme of the long-brewing crisis across South Africa is what Turton calls “an institutional collapse across the board".
He says: “An institution is not just the building; it’s where transactions occur, information flows in, decisions are made, and instructions flow out. Infrastructure is failing because institutions have failed."
He uses Johannesburg as an example:
“Johannesburg has 120 years of engineering design that has gone into solving one fundamental problem: how to get water to the highest point in the country on a continental watershed divide when no natural water exists.
“An extraordinary legacy of sophisticated engineering wisdom has seen us move from securing water from the Braamfontein Spruit to securing it out to Olifantsfontein, and then eventually building the Vaal Dam, then extending the Vaal Dam to link up with the Tugela River on the other side of the Drakensberg mountains, and ultimately drilling tunnels through the Lesotho Highlands — six-metre diameter tunnels, 80km long, to draw water that would never have flowed in that direction into the Vaal River system. And that accumulated knowledge is being flushed down the toilet by people who are so abysmally ignorant that it is a crying shame.
“Not one member of the board of Rand Water is a qualified engineer, although they have engineering qualifications. There are two career paths in the engineering field: one is a professional engineer and the other is a technician who executes the instructions given by the engineer. Technicians or technologists are usurping the role of professional engineers.
“The chief financial officer of Rand Water used to be a meter reader. He advanced rapidly through the ranks but still has the mindset of reading meters. He is not equipped to understand the long-term strategic financial forecasting needed to refurnish systems and, more importantly, extend the lifecycle of failing infrastructure.
“I could go on. Rand Water is a failed institution and cannot self-correct under present circumstances.
“And this situation we see in different forms and guises across the South African water landscape."
# 5 Zero engineering skills
South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) president Steven Kaplan recently shared data revealing the destruction of skills in cities and towns.
“In 2005, there was a balance between the senior engineers, technologists and technicians at local government,” Kaplan says. “The situation changed dramatically over the last decade, with virtually no senior engineers left at municipalities."
# 6 Population growth
Turton says the population has doubled since 1994 due to normal growth and immigration.
“We should have doubled our infrastructure to keep up with the increasing numbers, but that did not happen."
There has also been a massive internal migration to cities, and the population density in some urban areas has more than doubled and in some cases tripled, according to Turton. According to Ferrial Adam, the CEO of WaterCAN, a network of citizen science activists, money has constantly been diverted from water maintenance to other projects. “A mismanagement of funds has led us to not having spent enough on infrastructure maintenance."
# 7 Bad legislation
After the ANC came to power, it promulgated the Water Services Act, which Turton says “fundamentally altered the institutional arrangements for water management".
“It hollowed out the strategic planning function that used to reside in the national department. They got rid of those grey-haired men who used to do the 30-year strategic planning and forecasting and shifted all the responsibility for planning and forecasting onto the municipalities. And there was no institutional memory anywhere in SA municipalities to do this level of sophisticated future forecasting."
# 8 Cadre deployment
“The ruling elite seems to have been transfixed by the colour of the cat rather than the ability of the cat to catch rats," says Turton.
“Cadre deployment, in the name of redress and transformation, has proven to be toxic because suddenly you had a situation where you did not need to have the requisite skills to be deployed into some senior position; rather, the focus was on party loyalty. And in too many cases, part of that loyalty was about getting your hand into the cookie jar and diverting resources for the good of the elite."
Turton refers to a virus of incompetence.
“It seemed like a logical assumption that a technically qualified person, now in a junior position, would assist the technically incompetent senior person. In reality, however, a technically inept person feels acutely uncomfortable in the presence of a technically competent person, and one of the first things they start to do is find an excuse to fire, purge, transfer or get rid of that person. It’s like a virus that you inject into a cell. It replicates itself, and you start getting a systematic hollowing out of the technical skills in institutions. Working there becomes too hostile or unpleasant, and the competent people leave."
# 9 Bad political leadership + corruption
Corruption is a big contributing factor, says Adam. “The cholera crisis in Hammanskraal was caused by tender corruption — hundreds of millions of rands just gone. It's just one of the big ones.
“The second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Project has been delayed for nine years for similar reasons."
And then, she says, there has been appalling political leadership.
“The last three ministers — stretching back to [Nomvula] Mokonyane, who stopped releasing the Blue Drop and Green Drop reports — were an absolute disaster. Their departments were a mess; there was no leadership,p and it was absolute chaos. The present minister is a vast improvement and has a really good director-general. I still disagree with him when he says we do not have a water crisis because we do, but he is responsive and trying to turn things around."
At the heart of the problem
# 10 Sewerage system collapse
Turton says that the first indication of a systems meltdown is a failed water treatment works, and those signals have been coming in for 10 to 15 years.
“Most of our rivers and streams have sewage in them either because of overflowing manholes or malfunctioning wastewater treatment works," says Adam. “And this is across the country."
Because South Africa is a water-constrained economy, it adopted an indirect reuse model.
“Sewage works receive the nasty stuff from their catchment area and treat the effluent to a very high quality before returning it into rivers from where it gets reused," explains Turton.
The government’s 2021 Green Drop Report (issued in 2022) says only 3% of South Africa's more than 1,000 sewage plants are fully compliant. This is “an admission of complete failure", says Turton, because just a tiny volume of untreated sewage will destroy the entire value of a river.
“If you want to find one common theme in every single little town or dorpie in South Africa, it is untreated raw sewage running in the streets. In the industrial heartland of what used to be the PWV triangle, where about 80% of the primary production capacity on the entire continent of Africa used to exist, raw sewage is a festering crisis.
“Rand Water is headquartered in Vereeniging; the main pumping stations are at Zuikerbosch in Vereeniging, so Vereeniging is not only the industrial heartland of the continent, Africa, it’s also the epicentre for the water processing on which the entire economy of Gauteng is based. The catastrophe in Emfuleni, where the Vaal River was severely polluted in 2018, centred on sewage management.
“The sewage crisis is probably our biggest crisis," says Turton. “I would say that about 90% of our sewage works are dysfunctional in some way or another and that 30% to 40% of them are completely and utterly dysfunctional."
#11 Drinking water crisis
Turton explains that infrastructure starts breaking down without know-how and investment.
“You have more and more people and demand increases. More and more pipes break. At least 50% of our water is lost through leaking pipes, so you have to pump and process more and more water. At the same time, Eskom is load-shedding, so the pumps aren't working. Eventually it culminates in the final phase, the collapse of drinking water systems.
“This is the end stage of a multi-stage process that started with ignoring failed sewerage systems because institutions got weaker and weaker, and budgets were consumed by salaries and perks instead of investments in operations and management."
#12 Lost water
Benoît Le Roy, co-founder of the South African Water Chamber, says: “A third of all our precious water harnessed from our catchment areas, stored in expensive dams, conveyed and purified and distributed to users at great cost, is lost by municipal delivery systems."
In Johannesburg, up to 45% of water is lost due to leaks blamed on poor operation and maintenance of aged water infrastructure, commercial losses caused by meter manipulation, other forms of water theft and unbilled authorised consumption, such as firefighting.
Adam says there will not be enough water to allocate to new developments by 2030. “And that figure comes from almost 20 years ago. We knew that and yet the leaks have been building. The fact that we cannot get a handle on leaks is appalling."
The rapidly escalating crisis in Gauteng led Senzo Mchunu, the water and sanitation minister, to add a new term to the South African lexicon: “water-shifting." This is political PR nonsense — he is talking about rolling water cuts.
Adam says water-shifting means diverting flow from full reservoirs to struggling ones. One way is to shut certain reservoir areas at night to allow them to recover.
“Load-shedding is about moving electrons; water-shifting is about moving molecules," says Turton.
“When you put energy into the system in Koeberg, that energy will instantly be felt in Pretoria. But if you switch the water off in Vereeniging, where Rand Water is based, and then turn it back on, it will take 14 days for the system to get pressurised enough to get water out to wherever you are now in your guest house. This is why I think the water crisis is far more serious than the energy crisis."
We can’t help ourselves
#14 Dependence on a central supply
With the energy crisis, private investment in alternative solutions like generators and solar or backup batteries has allowed some people to make themselves Eskom-resilient. But that is not possible with water, says Turton.
“It’s not as though you can put a panel on your roof to catch the drops of water flying by. You still need a central water supply, and that's where the problem lies."
#15 Use water differently
There is an elegant solution, says Turton.
“We have to transition from what is known as a linear economy to a circular economy. In a linear economy, you discard your waste back into the system. In a circular economy, you reuse and recycle."
In 2004, the first edition of the National Water Resource Strategy said 98% of all available water had been allocated.
At this point, Turton says, our approach to water management should have changed from indirectly reusing wastewater to recovering water from sewage and putting it directly back into the drinking water system instead of into rivers. This is done in other water-stressed regions like Singapore and Perth in Australia.
“And we should have started to incentivise and instruct the CSIR and other institutions to focus on the science, engineering and technology required for desalination and water recovery from waste.
“All we need to solve this problem is to use every unit of water 1.6 times, and that simply means we have to recover 60% of the water we now throw away," says Turton. “From a technical perspective, it’s a straightforward solution."
And if done correctly, the bonus is that our ecosystems would start regenerating themselves because we would not be putting “all this gunk" back into the system.
Adam says the current state of affairs must be treated as an emergency. “We need a disaster kind of declaration so that everyone contributes in one way or another to ensure this works. Otherwise, it will justo get to a point of no return."
♦ VWB ♦
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