The Imminent Water Crisis in South Africa: A system on the verge of collapse

Estimated read time 4 min read

By Samkele Mchunu

Amid infrastructural failures and economic unrest, South Africa’s heavily populated areas and industrial core prepare for a water catastrophe. The largest bulk water provider in the continent, Rand Water, has issued a warning of impending collapse, putting over 13 million people at risk. Water systems have been weakened by years of mishandling, political squabbles, and neglect, which has made the supply crisis worse. Blame games break out as elections approach, further irritating the public. South Africa’s deteriorating water infrastructure will force a harsh reckoning as reservoirs disappear and demand rises.

In addition to the problems of an economy pummeled by power outages, clogged ports, and a malfunctioning freight rail system, South Africa faces the potential of a collapse in the water supply to its industrial core and most populous region.

The largest bulk water supplier in Africa, Rand Water Services Ltd., notified the three municipalities in the central Gauteng province—Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Ekurhuleni, which together have a population of over 13 million—on March 16 that their system was about to fail. The warning follows 11 days of widespread water shortages in Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa, some of which were caused by lightning striking a pump station.

Rand Water systems are facing extreme strain, according to a statement from the City of Tshwane, which is home to the nation’s capital, Pretoria. “Our shared water supply system as a whole is stressed.”

Similar to the nation’s transportation and electricity infrastructure, South Africa’s water supply systems have deteriorated due to poor maintenance, a failure to prepare for population increase, poor management, corruption, and political infighting. 44% of the water volume delivered to Johannesburg Water Management Ltd., which distributes water around the city, is lost to leaks and theft.

Professor Anthony Turton of South Africa’s University of the Free State’s Centre for Environmental Management stated, “The more that Rand Water pumps into this leaking sieve, the more they are depleting their reservoirs.” “The system is beginning to fail on its own.”

Since the end of December, Rand Water’s reservoirs have drained from being more than 70% full to roughly 30% full. With a prolonged period of hot weather driving up volumes, use by the three main metropolitan regions has increased to roughly 3.4 billion liters per day, its highest level in at least six months.

The utility can supply water than 4.6 billion liters per day in total, covering an area of more than 18,000 square kilometers (6,950 square miles). It also supplies people in three additional provinces and several smaller towns. Requests for comments from Johannesburg Water and Rand Water were not answered.

Economic activity is being threatened by disruptions in the water supply to mines and manufacturers, according to a March 10 piece written by Busi Mavuso, the CEO of Business Leadership South Africa, a lobby group.

In an interview with 702 Talk Radio, Johannesburg’s mayor, Kabelo Gwamanda, discounted criticism of the city’s difficulties in providing enough water, saying instead, “We understand the challenges that both entities are facing.” “The problem has always been excessive consumption.”

The water scarcity has escalated into a political crisis, with officials and utilities blaming each other for a problem that has infuriated voters, just over two months before the national elections.

Since December 2019, Gwamanda has served as Johannesburg’s mayor seven times. Critics claim that his selection is a symbol of the internal strife and frequently shifting alliances that have hampered the city’s functioning. He was appointed because larger parties were unable to come to an agreement on a substitute candidate. He is a member of the Al Jama-ah party, which holds three of the 270 seats in the city council.

Mike Muller, a water consultant and former director-general of South Africa’s Department of Water and Sanitation, stated that “there are really serious management capacity problems.” There isn’t a shortage. The municipalities are actually weak.

Johannesburg Water published a systems report on Monday that included a list of regions with little to no water and reservoirs that were “critically low.” Rand Water said in a statement earlier this month that municipalities that haven’t paid their bills owe it more than 3 billion rand ($158 million).

The manager of the water program of the nonprofit Organization Undoing Tax Abuse, which focuses on exposing corruption, Ferrial Adam, stated, “There has been ten years of neglect, not putting the funding in place required for maintenance.”

A local municipal councilor claims that the paucity of welders and then diesel needed to run their equipment caused delays in repairs to a pipe that burst earlier this month, cutting off supplies to numerous districts in northern Johannesburg.

Gwamanda has also come under fire after it was discovered that an unexpectedly closed valve delayed the restoration of services by preventing water from Rand Water from entering some areas of the city.

Adam declared, “The system is now at breaking point.”

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