South Africa’s water resources are overexploited despite the country being classified as water stressed.

The country is water scarce because of its arid to semi-arid climate and below-average annual rainfall of 465mm compared with the global annual average of 860mm. It is ranked the 40th-driest country in the world.

South Africa’s freshwater resources are under immense pressure

Testing water quality in the Klipspruit River

Charles van der Merwe tests water quality in the Klipspruit River in Soweto. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

South Africa’s freshwater resources are under immense pressure, with water stress worsening annually, moving the country closer to achieving overall water insecurity, threatening social, environmental and economic spheres if action is not taken.

There are a number of examples of water problems in the country.

In 2018, after three years of poor rainfall, the City of Cape Town took drastic action that was needed to avoid Day Zero, according to the World Economic Forum.

Water cuts were implemented in Gauteng last year during a heat wave with the biggest problem caused by decaying infrastructure and load-shedding.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the floods of April 2022 damaged water and sanitation infrastructure.

And in the Eastern Cape a drought felt for a number of years has resulted in water restrictions.

There are myriad reasons for these water woes, including both natural and human factors.

They include unsustainable water demands and withdrawals by various water users, continued and worsening water pollution, increased flooding and prolonged droughts caused by increased climate variability, collapsing aged water infrastructure, unacceptably high physical water losses, dilapidated state of wastewater treatment works and the continued decline of the delivery of services specifically related to water access, reliable water supply and sanitation services.

Solutions, such as fixing broken and ageing infrastructure that includes wastewater treatment plants, are costly and will take effort and finance from the government.

South Africa’s population has grown from 54 million in 2011 to 60.6 million in 2022. This creates a greater demand for a reliable supply of potable water.

Furthermore, despite the continued emphasis on the country being water scarce, average domestic water use is about 237 litres a person a day, 64 litres higher than the international benchmark of 173 litres a person a day.

Blame cannot be solely placed on the consumer because municipal non-revenue water — or water that is lost before it reaches the consumer — is at an unacceptable level of 41% or higher; global best practice is 15%. The water lost is included in the 237 litres statistic, meaning that 41% of water is lost, primarily through leakages and broken pipes.

Continued migration and population growth in both rural and urban settings also play a role by placing additional pressure on already strained and unreliable water supply.

The reality is that the country has limited water resources to accommodate consistent growing demand.

The government — national and local — must ensure that the management of water resources is done wisely and optimally, which is not the case. A business-as-usual approach is not a viable option because it will have detrimental consequences.

Many parts of South Africa are expected to become more vulnerable to water-related risks such as unreliable or no water supply, no functioning sanitation services and overall water insecurity. The projected 17% water deficit to be achieved by 2050 is driven by the problems of water insecurity.

In 2022, Minister of Water and Sanitation Senzo Mchunu, responding in parliament to a question from an Inkatha Freedom Party member, said “areas experiencing water shortages are mostly rural areas in the provinces of the Eastern Cape, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State and the Northern Cape”.

He also said that 32% of households in South Africa do not have access to reliable services because of dilapidated infrastructure and poor maintenance and the proper operation of infrastructure.

This ties into how crucial it is to ensure access, services and infrastructure to people in these areas.

The country’s sewage pollution crisis is set to continue with 40% of all wastewater already being left untreated. Of the 824 wastewater treatment works, 30% are in a critical state and 20% are in a poor state. The major sewage crisis is being experienced by the Vaal region, eThekwini municipality where rivers are polluted and beaches have had to be closed, and in the City of Cape Town where beaches were closed over the December/January holiday period because of sewage spills.

Despite the good rains for the past three summers, brought on by La Niña, that have filled dams, water woes are still experienced and will create more examples of regions experiencing water shortages or prolonged water outages. Power blackouts will have damaging effects on water supply by causing non-recovery of reservoirs, creating water supply outages.

Woman pouring water on ground Qwa Qwa has experienced water shortages over the past few years

Qwa Qwa has experienced water shortages over the past few years. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The absence of backup pumps at sewage works will further contribute to sewage overflows.

The load-shedding has also been blamed for damaging water infrastructure, causing unreliable water supply and sewage spills.

The increasing water pollution will decrease available water supply and lead to possible water shortages due to water becoming unfit for use.

Poor or a complete lack of service delivery in both rural and urban contexts will continue to be an issue unless some effort is made, on a national and local government level, to address major constraints such as the lack of appropriate human resources, being individuals with appropriate qualifications as well as skills and experience.

The problem-plagued Giyani Bulk Water Project, which was meant to service 55 villages in Limpopo, serves as an example of the consequences of no responsibility, unaccountability and fruitless spending of money.

The project commenced in 2014, and has been plagued by ongoing controversy and failure. It was supposed to have been completed in 2017 but the taps are still dry.

Mchunu promised in May last year that the project would be completed by September. The revised completion and operation date is now given as February this year.

The Special Investigating Unit is looking into the “disappearance” of R3 million, involving nine separate cases.

Mchunu visited the area in December and said: “We are looking forward to when the reports come out and point to specific culprits in the disappearance of funds which are part of the R3 billion that disappeared. It was money that was meant to change your lives.”

Focus is needed on maximising water supply, efficiency, and conservation as well as minimising water demand and continued major water losses. Some actions that can be considered include improving efficiency, adopting new technologies, reducing water losses, improving water awareness and creating water stewardship, actual enforcement of existing legislation and policies, cost recovery and incentives.

There are successful examples of this. Countries such as Namibia, Israel, Kenya, Peru and China have all adopted technologies and strategies to safeguard water.

The extension of water services to areas that have none, as well as improving levels of service, is required to address the backlog of providing water and sanitation services, especially in rural areas.

An estimated R90 billion a year of investment is required in the water and sanitation infrastructure sector over the next decade to address the country’s major water pollution problems to ensure reliable water supply and wastewater treatment compliance.

Municipalities’ incapacity to deliver, non-maintenance of existing ageing infrastructure as well as institutional problems of alleged corruption and mismanagement need to be investigated to ensure accountability.

A continuing nexus between poor infrastructure, poor management and poor revenue streams will create or exacerbate the vicious cycle of inadequate water and sanitation services. Systematic and carefully considered informed actions and interventions, together with actual political will, are required to address immediate challenges in the short term and attempt to ensure water security in the medium and long term.

Anja du Plessis is an associate professor at Unisa and a specialist in water resource management.

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