Water Watch

Electricity crisis’ terrible twin waiting in the wings

How long will the taps keep running?

South Africa’s electricity crisis has a ‘terrible twin’, thus far lurking mostly in the background, which might soon steal the limelight with devastating effect. (Read more)

Until now periodic load-shedding by electricity utility Eskom has dominated the news. But increasingly there are reports that tell the story of a water reticulation infrastructure dangerously under stress.

A repeat of the Eskom crisis on the water distribution front could be much more devastating on more fronts. For one, it could place the already fragile social stability in the country under severe pressure.

In many ways the looming water crisis emulates the electricity crisis and is in some respects even directly linked to it.

At this point government at various levels seems to be falling short of adequately facing up to the problem. Especially in the face of the fact that unlike with electricity temporary short-term bridging solutions are hardly available.

A spreading problem

Supply failures are becoming more frequent and seem to be escalating. So did related service delivery protests – often accompanied by violence. In recent times lack of access to safe water has often been the final trigger of protests.

A prime example has been Malamulele in Limpopo where protests over water and sanitation led to the burning down of four schools when the local community demanded an own municipality.

Problems flared up since late last year in virtually all provinces, from Cape Town to the far north of Limpopo and from Lichtenburg in the Northwest province to Durban and Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) a few months ago released a statement listing at least 26 towns in the Free State that had no water at all in certain areas, experienced water supply disruptions, or had extremely unhygienic water coming from their taps.

Causes of water constraints

At the heart of the problem is a shortage of trained and appropriately qualified personnel, especially at municipal and water board level, to maintain crumbling infrastructure. This holds true across the full spectrum – from pump stations and treatment plants to local reticulation networks.

Of South Africa’s water fit for human consumption 37% is being lost through inefficient usage such as dripping taps and leaking pipes.

To this can be added that just about all of South Africa’s available freshwater stocks from rivers, manmade dams and groundwater sources had already been fully allocated by 2005, according to the Water Conservation and Management Focus Group  of the University of South Africa’s (Unisa) Geography Department.

Projected economic and population growth anticipate that the demand for water will double over the next 30 years, making current patterns of water consumption and utilisation unsustainable.

Some projections made in 2012 foresaw South Africa running out of water by 2025 and in Gauteng, possibly already this year. And supply disruptions are indeed on the increase.

Echoing what is happening with Eskom, local authorities and entities like Rand Water Board also attribute delivery failures to ageing infrastructure, vandalism and theft.  

Corruption at municipal level, local power struggles and competition for water between industry and communities also contribute to problems.

Some basins supplying large South African cities are expected to face severe supply gaps caused by increased household and industrial demand. For example, the Berg River water management area, supplying Cape Town, has to close an estimated gap of 28% to meet future demand.

At the same time 60% of the 223 river ecosystem types in South Africa are threatened, and 25% critically endangered.

The situation with the 792 wetland ecosystems is even worse. The picture is further exacerbated by the existing and anticipated effects of climate change.

A report compiled by the European Union found extremely high levels of water pollution by harmful waste in South Africa and said only 5% of hazardous waste is dumped at the correct waste disposal sites.

According to one media article a confidential government report has found that R293 billion needs to be spent on infrastructure management over the next five years to avoid a full-on water crisis, 100 times more than the R2.9 billion the department is expected to spend this year.

It also revealed that almost 40% of South Africa’s waste water treatment is in a “critical state”, with that 273 water schemes, or 30% of the total, having budget deficits. A further 15% of the country’s water schemes are expected to fall into deficit over the next five years

A 2011 South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) commissioned investigation established that 23 municipalities had already reached crisis levels with “acute risk of disease outbreak and a further 106 were at high risk, with the “potential to deteriorate into a state of crisis”.

In 2012 of 931 municipal water systems audited, only 98 were given the international benchmark Blue Drop Certification for water quality.

Competition for water

Against this background, competition for water between various sectors in the national household becomes a very sticky situation.

Another study by the Institute of Security Studies titled “Parched Prospects: The Emerging Water Crisis in South Africa”, found that agricultural water demand accounts for 57%, municipalities for 35% and industry for 8%.

Complicating factors include:

  •  Some 8.5 million people depend on agriculture for their employment and income, and 7% of all formally employed people work in the agricultural sector which contributes 3% to the national GDP; 
  • Recent protests in North West’s Majakaneng were about a lack of water which residents claim is caused by a deal between the local municipality and mining companies, diverting water meant for household use to the mines, with local councillors benefitting personally from the deal; and
  • Millions of litres of contaminated water from mining activity in the Gauteng/Free State mining belt are already flowing daily into wetland and river systems. Estimates are that 30 million litres of neutralised AMD water will daily release about 70 tons of salt into the Tweelopiespruit and 500 tons of salt a day into the Vaal River system unless a desalination process is put in place. This water may soon become unfit for human use.

Impact of electricity crisis

The deteriorating water situation also has close links to the ongoing electricity crisis. Load-shedding renders pump stations and treatment plants inoperative and disrupt the lives of citizens. Recently in Polokwane the municipality had to ask residents to use water sparingly when power cuts caused water shortages.

Durban is considering plans of some own electricity generation because some critical city infrastructure comes to a standstill during power shutdowns. It caused, among other things, sewage waste to flow into the surrounding rivers.

The impact of a possible total electricity grid collapse could have catastrophic consequences for industrial and domestic water supplies.

Something of a preview of such a scenario occurred in September 2014 when power was lost at the Eikenhof pump station in Gauteng which supplies water to more than 40% of Johannesburg.

A faulty standby generator failed to kick in and as the pump station shut down, residents of Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Mogale City were without water for a week, exposing both the vulnerability of local authorities and the lack of back-up plans for bulk water systems. 

Government response

Government’s response to the looming water crisis has been a confusing mixture of acknowledging and denying the problem.

The Unisa report notes: “The government has recognised water as a strategic resource and has developed various strategies to address certain problems. However, the main issue is the lack of implementation and enforcement of these in the various economic departments.”

There have been some government successes on this front and the Department of Water and Sanitation reports in its 2013/14 – 2017/18 Strategic Plan: “On the water service delivery front, it is pleasing to observe that Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) records confirm that we have improved immensely on the figure of 59%, in providing access to clean and safe drinking water in the country in 1994 to 94.8% currently.”

But it also placed greater stress on available resources, threatening supply in the longer term. The availability of, and infrastructure to supply, clean safe water has not kept pace.

As with the electricity crisis, political denialism remains a problem. Government recognises the importance of water, but largely fails to acknowledge the existing or looming water crises, or tries to hide them from sight. 

President Jacob Zuma in his recent state of the nation address did refer to the issue, but seriously downplayed it.

Repeat performance

In a repeat performance of what is happening at Eskom, early warnings in Limpopo for example went unheeded without action plans and strategies being implemented. Already in December 2006 Limpopo’s then-premier Sello Moloto released his provincial government’s water strategy and five-year water plan, saying:

“Limpopo as a province faces extreme if not unique water issues. The extent of overutilisation of the little water available as well as the very limited ability to expand sources of this resource leaves the water authorities and as such the water users themselves facing problems that hinder delivery – especially to the province’s large community of poor people – if enduring measures are not taken for sustainable, efficient and effective use.”

Wide-ranging strategic goals were set out. Eight years later Limpopo’s water crisis remains unresolved and, if anything, the situation has worsened, despite over R500-million having been spent on the problem.

And this is pretty much the state of affairs across the entire country.


If left unresolved some of the likely consequences include:

  • A significant water crisis in the coming decade for which the country is ill-prepared;
  • Water scarcity becoming  a fundamental development constraint;
  • Increasing numbers of water-related problems leading to protests and socio-political unrest;
  • Increasing competition for limited water supplies heightening the danger of conflict  between communities and between communities and industrial water consumers;
  • Water becoming expensive, adversely affecting operational costs of sectors like agriculture, the mining and manufacturing industry and the living costs of households;
  • Food production and food security being put at risk; and
  • The infrastructure replacement and maintenance burden impacting the national budget and that of already struggling municipalities and water authorities;

If Eskom fails to resolve or even manage the power crisis, current water supply problems will escalate and hasten the onset of the looming overall water crisis.

More serious water supply disruptions in the immediate to near future look likely with serious implications for both the economy and social stability.



by Stef Terblanche

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