You think Load shedding is bad – Water shedding is far worse

Dr Mias van der Walt, Managing Director of Bigen’s Water and Agriculture Directorate and widely recognised thought leader in his field, explores why he believes water shedding is worse than load shedding.

Dr Mias van der Walt, Managing Director of Bigen’s Water and Agriculture Directorate and widely recognised thought leader in his field, explores why he believes water shedding is worse than load shedding.

17th March 2022

By: Creamer Media Reporter


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This article has been supplied as a media statement and is not written by Creamer Media. It may be available only for a limited time on this website.

Someone once said: “One of our greatest freedoms is how we react to things.” This is particularly true in times when things do not go according to plan. A case in point is the COVID-19 pandemic. Our lives were disrupted, but we all learned something very important – we have a remarkable ability to adapt to change. However, in South Africa, we had to adapt to more than just the COVID-19 pandemic.

Load shedding

Load shedding was the invention created to cope with our compromised energy generation ability.  The necessity of load shedding was borne from the mismatch between energy supply and demand as a result of poor planning, implementation and maintenance of the ESKOM generation pool. Load shedding was a precursor of a generation system in trouble – in fact very deep trouble. When we experienced the first instances of load shedding we did not appreciate the extent of the trouble. Poor maintenance of municipal power networks added extended power interruptions of several days to the energy security trouble.

Unreliable energy service delivery forced consumers to explore alternatives - in some cases this led to complete disconnection from the grid, ironically also with the realization that the transition to alternative forms of energy is often more cost-effective than large public utilities that are supposed to offer a benefit of scale. The gradual transition away from a centralized ESKOM grid to alternative energy sources is continuing across all levels of society; from individual households to large industries.

Energy consumers adapted and implemented cost effective and sustainable alternative decentralized energy solutions in a relatively short time.

Water shedding          

Water shedding is similar (but also different) to load shedding and is also a deliberate interruption of a water supply system to a consumer. Water shedding is only a symptom of a much more complex cause and not limited to only intermittent supply of potable water, but also the intermittent treatment of effluent produced by consumers. The reason for it is simple; water in South Africa is not used only once, but repeatedly. Untreated effluent from a consumer in the upper reaches of a catchment area will therefore impact on all downstream water users in the sense that they may not be able to treat water to potable standards or they may have to implement advanced technologies to ensure proper treatment.

The past decade has seen increasing instances of water shedding, extended water interruptions, not only of a few hours, but of several days and even weeks across South Africa.  In a recent WISA newsletter (15 March 2022) three incidents of major water shortages were reported: Water shortages in parts of Pietermaritzburg, a water crisis in Nelson Mandela Bay and the impact of load shedding on the Ugu Municipality water supply.

Unlike load shedding, where many alternative energy sources are readily available, alternative water sources are not so easy to develop.

Where water shedding is experienced for short periods, consumers can use buckets or tanks to store water, but long term water shedding requires a different approach. Urban consumers are particularly vulnerable and are largely dependent on a centralized water supply system. Extended water shedding will eventually deplete water stored in bottles and tanks and could therefore potentially have major economic and societal impacts. Many consumers across the country can attest to the extent to which life and business is disrupted when you do not have piped water for more than a few days.

The question then arises, why do we not simply develop alternative water sources? In South Africa, water supplied to urban areas is the product of an extensive value chain that requires the effective management of multiple processes. To find an alternative water source for a city that is largely dependent on an external (and distant) water source of say 100 Ml/d is not something that can be developed in a few days or even months – it takes several years.

If you currently experience water shedding in your area, you should be very concerned as your water security has been compromised. It also means that you have long-term trouble and that it will take several years to develop alternative water sources – not even to mention the capital required to develop the water source.

The water value chain – a simplified version

Provision of water services involves a complex chain of processes, events and entities that ensure water is captured, stored, treated, transmitted and distributed to end users on a 24/7 basis.  The anthropogenic water cycle intercepts runoff produced from rain in dams from where water supply systems are developed to supply consumers with potable water.

The tap(s) in your house is fed by your neighbourhood water reticulation system, a series of interconnecting pipes where the flow and pressure are controlled in order not to exceed the physical limitations of the pipes that distribute the water. If these control devices are not maintained, pressures can rise, pipes can burst or start leaking creating local flooding and potholes.  Reticulation systems in turn are fed by bulk transfer and storage systems. Large transfer pipelines (often made from steel) transfer water over long distances from distant sources and require basic maintenance to prevent the pipes from corroding and ensure that all valves are functioning correctly. If the maintenance on the transfer pipelines is not done correctly leaks will occur after a few years and the valves will not function properly leading to water interruptions.

Storage is required to balance peak flow and meet emergency requirements. Storage tanks use level control valves. Inadequate maintenance of control valves will lead to reservoirs to run dry or overflow. These tanks also need to be cleaned on the inside from time to time to remove sediment and if not done brown or black water often ends up in your tap.

Transfer systems also incorporate large pumping stations to transfer the water over long distances to overcome friction and elevation differences. If the pumping stations is impacted by load shedding or not properly maintained the entire water supply system downstream of the pumping station will run dry.

In most urban areas water sources often originate from non-pristine sources that requires treatment to convert it to potable water. This process of converting dirty water to potable water happens at a water treatment plant where numerous treatment processes, motors, pumps, computers and various instruments are used to remove various impurities from the water and eventually renders the water potable free from colour, odour, taste and micro-organisms.

Many things can go wrong in a water treatment plant and it is for this reason that these plants are often built with a lot of redundancy in case of unplanned breakdowns. For a treatment works to operate effectively there needs to be power, treatment chemicals, qualified and experienced people operators, laboratory and maintenance staff and water. And yes, in the absence of energy, load shedding will result in water shedding.

A water treatment works can only produce clean water if there is a suitable source of raw water to treat. Where does this come from?  In order for the treatment works to abstract and treat water sustainably for 365 days of the year it requires a reliable source of water. In the northern parts of South Africa it rains mostly in the summer and very little in winter (It is almost the complete reverse in the south-western parts of South Africa.) Our government has for many decades invested in the building of massive dams to capture runoff during the rainy season in order to have sufficient water for treatment during the dry seasons. The largest dam in South Africa is the Gariep Dam with a storage capacity of more than 5 000 0000 000 000 liters. These dams also require maintenance on special sluices and valves to control the release of water to the treatments works and other downstream users. If these dams are not maintained properly it can lead to the catastrophic failure of a dam wall and this will result in massive and long-term water shortages for years to come. An example of a dam that requires urgent upgrading to prevent a potential catastrophic failure is for instance the Clanwilliam Dam.

In many cases in South Africa, effluent from one city becomes the source of surface water for the next downstream city. For example, the effluent from ThabaNchu and Botshabelo is retreated by Mangaung Metropolitan Municipality for consumption by Bloemfontein water users only to be discharged and used again by other downstream municipalities such as Sol Plaatjes.

If water services authorities do not treat their effluent properly it pollutes our rivers and dams and makes it very difficult for downstream users to treat water to potable standards. In many cases the dams and rivers have become so polluted that the treatment works cannot treat the water to a potable standard any longer and require very expensive process upgrades to remove all kinds of organic compounds from the water. Unfortunately, according to the data to our disposal, this is the status quo at various major treatment plants throughout the country that need urgent upgrades to treat heavily polluted raw water sources. The management of catchments is therefore critical in ensuring that our water resources are protected.

The National Water Act was published in 1998 and provided for the establishment of Catchment Management Agencies. In the past 20+ years since the promulgation of the National Water Act only 2 Agencies of the 9 planned CMA’s are operational.

What causes water shedding?

In most cases water system failures can be attributed to a lack of planning (demand outstripping supply), poor maintenance (equipment becoming unreliable or unserviceable), inappropriately skilled staff, unmotivated staff (staff that does not want to do their work), inappropriate business processes and poor cost recovery. Any one of the above causes superimposed on the water value chain described above will lead to short to long term water shortages.

The question then arises, as South Africans we were able to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have also partially adapted to load shedding, but there does not seem to be any drive to address water shedding that has been experienced in some areas for several years?

Is it a technological problem, a capital problem or a problem of accountability?

Who is responsible for water services and who should hold them accountable?

The institution(s) responsible to keep the water value chain intact is the local or district municipality. The Constitution of South Africa gave local municipalities the responsibility to provide municipal services. The Water Services Act of 1997 gave water services authorities the duty to provide water services (including sanitation services) as follows:  ”Every water services authority has a duty to all consumers or potential consumers in its area of jurisdiction to progressively ensure efficient, affordable, economical and sustainable access to water services.” 

The Act further states that water services authority must take into account a number of factors such as alternative ways of providing access to water services; regional efficiency; benefit of scale; low costs; equity; resources from neighbouring water services authorities.

The same Act also states that no person (also includes a Water Services Authority) may continue the wasteful use of water after being called upon to stop by the Minister, a Province or any water services authority. Any person who does not adhere to this is guilty of an offence and liable, on conviction, to a fine or to imprisonment or to both such fine and imprisonment.

It is then clear that where water shedding occurs, the responsible water services authority is not doing what the Water Services Act requires it to and has failed to provide access to sustainable water services.

The question then arises if water shedding is such a common occurrence in our country, who needs to take the Water Services Authority to task to rectify their non-compliance to the Act. Have you heard of water services authority officials that have been fined or jailed for continued disregard of their duty as Water Services Authority?

Can we fix water shedding?

In order to fix any problem, we first need to acknowledge that there is a problem. We also need to understand the extent of the problem.

Yes, we can fix water shedding, but we need to realise that our water services problem is huge, growing by the day and will not be solved quickly.

In order to fix water shedding we need to first address the current lack of accountability. There is currently no consequence for non-performance. This results in officials doing as little as possible and not taking water services seriously. If this step in not addressed there will be no improvement in service delivery. Public officials need to be held accountable.

Other interventions, and the list is not exhaustive, include:

  • Groundwater resource development provides an alternative to centralized surface water resources and this resource is surprisingly abundant even in urban areas. The World Water Day theme this year is Groundwater: Making the invisible visible.

  • Urban growth can be addressed through decentralised alternative treatment systems and local water reuse. Many such examples already exist in South Africa. Decentralised water systems can be surprisingly cost effective compared to large regional bulk systems.

  • Even though the provision of water services remains the duty of the water services authority it does not mean it is cost effective to perform all services in-house. It is often more cost effective and efficient to contract service out to professional service providers, suppliers or contractors. Many successful models exist where poor service delivery was turned around with the involvement of the private sector. One of the best examples is where a utility was established to raise funding, fix and expand water infrastructure, operate and maintain assets where a municipality was completely bankrupt. This utility was established in 2005 and is still operational.

  • An independent and effective regulatory organization needs to be established that will monitor water services performance. Outcomes of the monitoring functions should be issued to the public protector and auditor general.

  • Effluent discharged by water service authorities shall be discharged upstream of the point where water is abstracted in order to forces users to treat their effluent properly.

In conclusion

If you experience water shedding your water supply system is insecure. Are you sufficiently worried about the fact that it will take years to restore your water supply system?

Your water service authority is, by law, responsible to provide a sustainable and cost-effective water service. Did you know that you are also, by law, required to pay for water services?

If your water services authority is not providing sustainable and cost-effective water services, do you know that the Minister should intervene and instruct the water services authority to correct the situation or face a fine or a jail sentence?

The current state of our rivers begs the question, in the absence of a Catchment Management Agency, who is the responsible institution to ensure that pollution is addressed. Why was the Vaal River downstream of Emfuleni Local Municipality allowed to deteriorate to the point it is today?

For years water service authorities have been allowed to pollute our water resources at a massive scale. Poor service delivery was allowed to continue without consequence.  Why are we surprised that we experience water shedding and that our water infrastructure is insecure? It is because public servants are not serving the public any longer and they do not take their responsibility seriously because they are not held accountable and because there are no consequences for the negligence.

Water is life, without it we will die. As long as you have clean water in your tap, pay your water bill with a smile, because if you don’t, the future will be grim, the water smelly and our country will literally go down the drain.

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Edited by Creamer Media Reporter




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