South Africa’s freshwater reality


By prof. Anja du Plessis

The reality of the scale and scope of South Africa’s major water challenges as well as, in some cases, crises, varies in the specific type, frequency, size and intensity.

These water challenges are nothing new and have developed and intensified over the past two to three decades. However, South Africa is reaching ever-increasing tipping points to ensure current and future water security.

Unfortunately, particular problems have either created new water challenges in places that did not have major water-related problems in the past or exacerbated existing problems – these problems include continued poor water management and mismanagement, non-enforcement of existing legislation, poor or no planning, ongoing lack of action together with a now entrenched culture of unaccountability and non-transparency.

Dysfunctional, insolvent and/or non-performing municipalities and other water service delivery institutions (with the primary mandate of providing water access, reliable supply, safe for drinking and sanitation services) such as Johannesburg have in some cases created a perfect storm of water-related issues. These ultimately exacerbate challenges to such an extent that citizens, even in metropolitan areas, are left with unreliable supply or dry taps.

Numerous examples of water crises are visible across the country. From the cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal, newly implemented water spills in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni as well as the ongoing and increasing sewage crises across South Africa. Specifically, the water crises within the eThekwini local municipality destroy ecological functioning, threaten overall human health, have a detrimental impact on businesses and socio-economic growth in the region – especially for those who depend on tourism as part of their livelihood.

We must remember that South Africa is a water-scarce country, characterized by a predominant dry to semi-arid climate, which receives below average rainfall (465 mm per year) – 395 mm less than the global average of 860 mm per year. South Africa’s unevenly distributed rainfall also leads to uneven distribution of water resources, and is ranked among the 30 driest countries in the world. The overall water crisis is seen as the second highest risk to doing business in the country, after the unemployment crisis.

Other major water challenges or crises include:

  1. Water supply does not meet current (unsustainable) water needs and withdrawals.
  2. Unreliable and/or inadequate water supply and sanitation services in both urban and rural settings.
  3. Ongoing collapses of dilapidated water infrastructure contributing to ever-increasing non-revenue water, where over 41% of treated drinking water is primarily lost before it even reaches the consumer.
  4. Increased and continued pollution from multiple sources causing the spread or even worsening of major water challenges – which include eutrophication, salinization, sedimentation, acidification and microbial contamination of already scarce freshwater resources.
  5. Non-functioning and/or overwhelmed wastewater treatment works (WWTWs) that contribute greatly to sewage pollution, the degradation or destruction of aquatic environments. This is clearly visible from large-scale fish kills as well as major human health risks such as diarrhoea, cholera and typhus.
  6. Lack of enforcement and implementation of existing legislation, policies, strategies and established standards.
  7. Inadequate water monitoring networks with some sampling not taking place for years (specifically between 2012 and 2015), or malfunctioning monitoring stations or equipment that are never replaced.

All of these primary drivers have first placed severe and increased stress on already scarce water resources – both in the quantity available as well as their quality.

Water spillage has now also been added to the list, highlighting poor and/or incompetent water management at all levels and from relevant stakeholders. Incompetent water management has unfortunately put additional pressure on the country’s already scarce water resources as continued pollution renders the water unfit for use and thus useless.

2023 in review

In short, South Africa’s water issues have increased in numbers and scope in 2023.

The entrenchment of unaccountability and dysfunction of local municipalities (responsible for providing reliable water supply of a suitable standard) has become clearer. Mostly thanks to a continued increase in awareness of water issues highlighted by civil society and with support from relevant academic work and investigative journalism.

Unfortunately, civil society and water users have been adversely affected by poor water management, mismanagement as well as overall inaction due to continued lack of political will and investment, exacerbating existing water challenges.

The ongoing decline in water service delivery in the Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni are excellent examples of how one region can be hit by a perfect storm – composed of no political will, governance instability, ongoing infighting, poor or no planning, mismanagement and alleged corruption, ongoing power cuts which affects poor restoration of water infrastructure and in turn leads to erratic water supply or dry taps for days on end for some consumers.

However, some forward steps have been taken in 2023 and include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. Giyani Bulk Water Project: Completion of phase 1 connecting the villages to the water source, which is still under development. Measures have been introduced to prevent corruption in the procurement process at municipal level.
  2. New “Mega” Vlakfontein Reservoir: The project was launched in February 2023. The additional storage capacity of 210 mega-litres adds a 24-hour buffer for areas in Tshwane.
  3. Release of the green and blue drop report and the no drop report. However, the major delay in the release of the final green drop audit report and blue drop interim report is worrying as it was already due to be released in July 2023.
  4. Current review of national legislation and standards – an ongoing project to review and amend where necessary.
  5. Increased visibility of the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) to raise awareness and communicate with relevant stakeholders and the public. The department announced the theme of the year: “Acceleration of Change”, with the aim of encouraging policy makers and decision makers to increase their efforts in providing water access. During the year, the department was part of numerous panel discussions initiated by them and other role players.
  6. The introduction of the National Water Resources Infrastructure Agency with the sole purpose of administering, operating and funding all infrastructure related to national water resources.

The negatives unfortunately outweigh these few forward-looking steps, seeing that the country’s water resources are still under great threat – with some water sources rendered unfit for use due to ongoing pollution.

Freshwater outlook for 2024

Firstly, the green drop audit report and blue drop interim report should be released seeing that they are long overdue. This is once again an example of a lack of action and lack of transparency by government departments at all levels that are responsible for water supply to consumers.

These reports are of the utmost importance as they highlight the current state of waste water treatment works (mostly at critical levels) as well as the compliance of municipalities in providing water access, reliable supply of drinking water of a suitable quality as well as overall water and sanitation service delivery.

The created culture of lack of transparency, unaccountability, total neglect and apathy is evident from the green drop report. Only 50% of municipalities found inadequate responded to their non-compliance letters and even less than 50% submitted the required water management intervention plan. A clear example of continued apathy and negligence.

The current water monitoring network infrastructure and equipment must be serviced and brought online to assist decision makers. Without these up-to-date reports and/or water monitoring data, well-informed water management plans cannot be developed in an informed manner. Appropriate short-, medium- and long-term interventions or initiatives (with the sole aim of addressing the consequences of ongoing water challenges and minimizing crises) cannot be accurately developed either.

We can only manage and plan correctly if we can “see” issues in more detail and develop more site-specific, suitable, effective measures and solutions. Unaccountability, opacity and total neglect persist due to non-enforcement/implementation, poor governance, mismanagement as well as continued alleged corruption – all of which significantly inhibit positive progress.

For the water sector to move forward the blame game must stop. Action must be taken, appropriate context specific action and interventions must be developed/identified and implemented to maintain or improve water security. We must begin to address the country’s major water challenges.

  • Prof. Anja du Plessis is an expert in water resource management at Unisa.