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Greater urgency urged as climate change amplifies SA’s water insecurity

23rd September 2022

By: Natasha Odendaal

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor


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Water security remains one of the biggest challenges facing South Africa, with the country’s supply facing many threats amid increasing demand and relatively low water availability.

While the situation may not yet be an absolute crisis, if left unchecked, South Africa’s water sector is a few years away from water shortages that will have a similar impact to that of the current electricity shortages forcing State-owned power utility Eskom to implement intermittent load-shedding.

It is a significant challenge, which experts have been flagging for decades, with some warning that the country faces a future of regular water-shedding, or rationing.

The National Infrastructure Plan (NIP) 2050, which indicates that seven out of 13 major water systems could be in deficit by 2040, highlights a huge risk of water restrictions being imposed in all South Africa’s metropolitan areas over the next five years.

Currently, several cities across South Africa face the threat of a so-called Day Zero, where taps run dry, most notably Nelson Mandela Bay, in the Eastern Cape, where a severe drought has depleted the region’s dams and infrastructure provision has not kept pace with demand.

Cape Town nearly had such a scenario in 2018, when the authorities implemented significant water restrictions to ensure water security after a years-long drought had left the dams supplying the region at unsustainable levels.

While Water and Sanitation Deputy Minister David Mahlobo highlights that the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) has made strides in eradicating water supply backlogs to households, with households with access to water supply now at 88.7%, only 68% of households are receiving reliable water supply.

The country’s imminent water crisis has long been attributed to inadequate water infrastructure maintenance and investment, persistent climate change-driven extreme flooding interspersed with years-long droughts, inequality in access to water and sanitation, deteriorating water quality, pollution and corruption, as well as inefficient use, waste, leaks, illegal and undocumented water use and unsuitable and unmaintained infrastructure.

This is exacerbated by increasing demand, owing to population growth, rural-urban migration and industrialisation.

University of South Africa Department of Geography associate professor Anja du Plessis tells Engineering News & Mining Weekly that there is a need to treat the causes, which are multifaceted and well known, rather than the symptoms.

Building new dams may not be the solution, especially since South Africa already has extensive, albeit dilapidated, water infrastructure that needs to be maintained, upgraded and enhanced.

Investment in new dams and other new infrastructure should instead be redirected to fixing the current degraded and or non- functioning infrastructure, which is experiencing significant water losses, particularly as uneven and unpredictable rainfall is unlikely to fill these new dams, as there are few suitable building sites to ensure that they catch the rainfall.

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research integrated water resources management specialist Ashwin Seetal agrees, noting that it would be much more cost effective – and impactful – to fix the leaking pipes and maintain existing bulk infrastructure.

“We have backlogs, such as infrastructure maintenance, and have lost much time with programme implementation for a number of reasons and have to play a very serious catch-up through fast-tracking key initiatives and programmes over the next three to five years. It is very doable,” he says.

A draft of the third iteration of the National Water Resources Strategy (NWRS-3) is currently out for public consultation and it indicates that, despite the high water losses throughout the systems, there are minimal water conservation and demand management activities being implemented.

“South Africans generally have a consumptive mindset and are not prudent in the way water is used, particularly in the urban areas, where up to 60% of water is used for nonessential purposes such as swimming pools and irrigating lawns. We use a very small fraction of that water for our actual personal use, such as hygiene, drinking, laundry and other basic essential uses,” Seetal points out.

South Africans’ average per capita domestic water use is an estimated 237 ℓ/d, compared with the international benchmark of 173 ℓ, which is also partly attributable to high municipal nonrevenue water.

Du Plessis says water degradation is also a major issue that needs attention in South Africa, as it contributes to increased water scarcity by causing available water resources to be of an unacceptable quality for various uses.

Water quality is often challenged by eutrophication, salinisation, sedimentation and soil erosion, acidification, or, more commonly, acid mine drainage (AMD) and sewage pollution.

“You can have all the water in the world that you want. If it is polluted, you will not be able to use it,” she says, noting that there will be financial implications, as the more pollution there is, the more expensive it is to treat water to get it to acceptable standards, as well as socioeconomic, ecosystem and human health implications.

DWS director-general Dr Sean Phillips, unpacking the NWRS-3, also points to the necessity of ensuring water infrastructure systems withstand various water-related shocks, regardless of whether those emanate from extreme events or from the degradation of water quality.

“Things are no longer what they used to be. Aging and dysfunctional water systems should give way to designs that are resilient to climate change and extreme events such as floods. Hence, the mainstreaming of climate change considerations in town planning as well as water planning and management is very important,” he says.

Another weak link is municipal services.

“We are on track in terms of ensuring water supply to communities, but the municipalities are our weakest link. It is a major concern that the provision of reliable services of both water and sanitation is showing signs of decline,” says Mahlobo.

Seetal points out that issues such as climate change, South Africa’s industrial ambitions, industrial growth and rapid urbanisation are the big pressure factors in municipal areas, while many water service authorities are underperforming owing to a lack of resources, skills availability and revenue management.

“We do have pockets of excellence, but it is not mainstream,” he says, adding that the country’s water sector role-players should improve how they communicate what has worked well and examine the possibilities and merits of scaling relevant initiatives up at appropriate national levels.

In addition, ineffective programme management and leadership and under- and non- performance at programme level must be urgently addressed. The instability in the DWS has left a vacuum that was contributing to the sector’s deterioration. These gaps are showing signs of being addressed.

All these challenges happen against the backdrop of water scarcity, with climate change exacerbating an already vulnerable situation that will leave the poor most adversely affected.

According to the NIP 2050, without significant changes in how water is managed, the water deficit will continue to grow, increasingly constraining investments, job creation and economic growth.

Mitigating the challenge is a massive undertaking, and the prospects of addressing it appear gloomy; however, the consequences of failing to do so are significant.

“If what you see happening in the electricity space happens in the water space,” Seetal says, “it will become a vicious downward spiral,” noting that “the impact of water-shedding goes beyond the economy and reduced foreign direct investment and into the social domain, with education, work and family activities, including cooking and bathing, having to be organised around water-shedding schedules.”

Recovery from this situation will be extremely difficult.

It will also affect people’s livelihoods, wherein communities will not have any water for their vegetable gardens or their subsistence farming, for example, as well as their quality of life, adds Du Plessis.

Seetal assures that if measures to address the “slow” crisis are taken, it is not all doom and gloom and it is unlikely that the country will physically run out of water on a national scale.

“It is a bad situation, but we have the resources, tools and mechanisms to deal with this.”

He notes that while South Africa has some of the best legislation globally to govern water – capturing every facet of how water management should be undertaken and facilitating the flexibility to adapt how the resource is managed down to a local level – sadly, implementation is generally weak.

While South Africa has been at the forefront of water sector innovations and initiatives, challenges remain in implementing policy for a number of reasons, including an erosion of the sector’s capacity, competence and leadership at key implementation levels and poor collaboration and effective coordination among jointly responsible and implementing entities.

“We have an implementation backlog that we need to fast-track. We have not kept pace with the type of skills and competence required to implement the frameworks in this highly complex sector,” says Seetal.

Skills and competence are among South Africa’s biggest challenges, impacting performance that include financial management, project and programme performance, and the ability to manage infrastructure.

“We can actually fix a lot, but time is running out,” Seetal comments, noting that there is a window of about three to five years before “things get very serious”, along the lines of what is being seen in the electricity sector.

The measures proposed in the NWRS-3 include expanding groundwater development, rainwater harvesting, water reuse, AMD, desalination of saline water and effective implementation of water conservation and water demand management.

Currently oversubscribed, surface water sources will continue to be developed; however, greater emphasis on the underused groundwater is required.

Currently, an estimated less than 15% of the groundwater in South Africa is being effectively used.

“The DWS also resolves to ensure enhanced implementation of innovative technologies for improved water security and to set stricter minimum requirements for wastewater treatment works effluent discharges,” Phillips says of the ambitions of the NWRS-3.

The challenges faced by the water sector, however, cannot be the sole responsibility of government, he says, noting that the entire water sector has a role to play by producing specific action plans as stipulated in the National Water and Sanitation Master Plan.

“Funding must be sourced from the fiscus as well as through public–private partnerships, with finance and skills sourced from government as well as the private sector.”

Edited by Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor




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