‘Water shifting’ is not the answer to water shortages


By prof. Anja du Plessis, Unisa

Johannesburg and its surroundings, in the middle of the industrial heartland of South Africa, have been hit by severe water cuts. Water outages have been occurring for years, but have increased dramatically in recent weeks. The deteriorating situation recently forced the Minister of Water and Sanitation, Senzo Mchunu, to intervene.

On September 27, he announced a new initiative – “water shifting” – a proposal that has echoes of “load shedding”. Prof. Anja du Plessis, a water management expert, explains the new water initiative.

When did water outages start?

Freshwater challenges occur regularly in South Africa. These include increased pressure on the amount of fresh water available for use, uneven distribution and lack of access to clean water and sanitation services.

Gauteng, the country’s economic center, is not exempt from this. The water crisis is driven by a number of factors:

  • the overall decline in the quality and condition of water infrastructure – it is at risk of total collapse in some areas,
  • droughts, and
  • alleged corruption, which affected the functioning of municipalities and municipal treatment plants.

Neither the national nor regional water authorities have succeeded in finding solutions to the water crisis. Rather, the situation worsened. In the last few months, some consumers, such as those living in the suburb of Brixton west of central Johannesburg, have had dry taps for more than three weeks.

Water tankers have been brought in to provide supplies, but residents complain that the availability and quality of water is unreliable. Some people only use it for bathing and flushing toilets, and buy bottled water for drinking and cooking.

In September, the national and regional water authorities announced a plan that will spread the impact of water cuts between communities. The term the politicians coined for the new measures is “watershed”.

What is ‘watershed’?

The plan is to start “sharing” water to take the pressure off the worst affected areas. In general, high-lying areas of the city were the hardest hit.

The reason for this is that the distribution of water requires pressure, which comes from a water source – a reservoir or water tower. When pressure is lost within the system, high elevation areas are usually affected first as there is not enough pressure in the system to get the water there.

Pressure is lost when reservoirs reach critically low levels. This can happen due to leaks, burst pipes, above average water consumption or power outages affecting pumping stations.

Any of these factors can cause pressure to decrease at a rapid rate.

Johannesburg’s water supplier, Rand Water, plans to move water from a reticulation system with sufficient pressure to a struggling system. The idea is to provide a fair supply of water to municipal customers.

Rand Water will implement water diversion as an interim measure to assist with the restoration of struggling reticulation systems. An implementation date was not given.

But Johannesburg Water, which is responsible for supplying water to the city’s residents, must develop and submit a water management plan to address the crisis.

Could this crisis have been avoided?

In short, yes. The Gauteng province’s metropolitan councils are perfect examples of the consequences of poor water management and governance as well as a lack of political will over the past two decades. This has led to a lack of investment and underfunding of bulk water and sanitation infrastructure.

The result is that the water infrastructure, from water supply to treatment, storage, water sources and management, has fallen into disrepair. There is also a lack of planning and management of growing water needs as a result of increased population, migration and expansion of settlements. The poor management and complete lack of water and sanitation delivery and services is another factor.

There have been frequent water outages in the province over the past five years. An estimated 30% of the province’s residents reported frequent water outages in 2017/-18, increasing to 33% in 2020/-21.

Johannesburg is not alone. The poor state of water infrastructure across the country has been a problem for many years.

A detailed report was set out in 2022 by the South African Institution for Civil Engineering. It showed that the country’s water infrastructure had deteriorated to the point that it was in danger of failing. The report called for swift action to avoid severe water supply shortages.

Unfortunately, this was not taken into account.

Other factors also contributed to the water crisis.

First, there is continuously high water consumption by consumers, partly due to increased temperatures. The province’s residents consume an estimated 300 liters (which includes water losses) per day, compared to the world average of 173 litres.

Another factor was the amount of water lost. In Johannesburg, for example, a minimum of 41% of treated potable water supplied by Rand Water to Johannesburg Water is lost before it even reaches the consumer. This is called “non-revenue water” by the municipality. Water is lost mainly through leaks and burst pipes attributed to poor operation and maintenance.

Is ‘water shifting’ a solution?

The minister of water and sanitation has made it clear that this is an interim measure.

But even as an interim measure, it will require a high level of political will as well as technical expertise to work.

“Water shifting” should not be a permanent measure or become the norm as it does not address the cause of the current crisis. Potable water will continue to be lost through leaking and burst pipes.

Relevant stakeholders, including the Department of Water and Sanitation, Rand Water and municipalities such as the City of Johannesburg, must stop the blame game and work together to address the primary causes of the water challenges, instead of the symptoms. The dilapidated state of water infrastructure must be urgently addressed to avoid water rationing.

This article first appeared on The Conversation. The Conversation