Action needed to ease the burden on South Africa’s water systems

10th May 2024

Action needed to ease the burden on South Africa’s water systems

Olebogeng Manhe, Chairman of the Gap Infrastructure Corporation (GIC)

By: Olebogeng Manhe, Chairman of the Gap Infrastructure Corporation (GIC)

A combination of rapid urbanisation, climate change and droughts, high water demand, and aging infrastructure have placed severe strain on local water systems, resulting in water shortages, “water-shifting”, and the growing threat of water-shedding.

Notably, a third of South Africans currently live in urban centres, and that number is projected to grow to 80% by 2050. Additionally, according to the National Water and Sanitation Master Plan released in 2019, South Africans consume roughly 237 litres of water per person per day (l/c/d) – about 61 l/c/d more than the global average. The country also experiences exceptionally high amounts of water losses through leaks, breakages, and burst pipes, and the plan revealed that around 57% of the country’s water and sanitation infrastructure requires urgent refurbishment and renewal.

In response, the government has proactively increased its water infrastructure spending to safeguard water security and enhance water supply, allocating an average annual increase of 12.3% to water infrastructure spending between now and the 2025/2026 fiscal year. Additionally, as the Gap Infrastructure Corporation (GIC), we have been proud to have been a part of rolling out and helping to improve critical water infrastructure over the past few years.

However, a range of urgent short-term and long-term solutions are needed as pressure on water systems mount.

Easily implementable short-term solutions

Some temporary measures are available that may not prevent water-shedding completely, but may help delay it long enough to allow South Africa’s public sector and private infrastructure developers the time needed to work together to implement the necessary long-term solutions.

The first and arguably simplest to install are water tanks in or near homes which can ensure uninterrupted or backup water supply until normal service is restored. But simply storing tap water does not ease the burden on the municipal water network, and might in fact temporarily increase this burden as these tanks are filled.

As such, onsite water tanks need to be paired with rainwater harvesting techniques, where the captured water can be used for non-drinking purposes such as flushing toilets, washing cars or irrigating gardens.

Borehole water is also an option in areas where there are sufficient, high-quality groundwater resources. As an option for non-potable use, these are generally cost-effective, depending on factors such as the depth and sustainable yield of the borehole.

These systems can be implemented or installed fairly easily, quickly, and inexpensively by local municipalities and their private infrastructure partners in areas where the greatest need exists.

Large-scale, long-term solutions

A significant part of the solution lies in improving existing water infrastructure. But as the Department of Water and Sanitation’s 2023 Blue Drop Watch Report notes, the cost of refurnishing and repairing existing water supply systems will total roughly R1.5 billion. Even greater sums are needed to roll out vital water infrastructure in burgeoning towns and cities – especially as the country’s population continues to grow.

These sums represent a sizeable burden on public sector balance sheets, which is why public-private partnerships (PPPs) can play a vital role in managing fiscal risks while ensuring efficient service delivery and returns on investment.

Private infrastructure development partners are able to offer critical technical skills and financial support for large-scale projects that deliver sound long-term solutions.

Additionally, companies such as GIC have the capability to bring in the innovative technologies and advanced construction and planning methodologies needed to more efficiently refurbish existing water infrastructure, for example by repairing leaks, upgrading old systems, and installing new technologies that can detect and better pinpoint where any maintenance may be needed in future.

In terms of financial support, PPPs can further play a role in assisting government to attract private investment into water infrastructure projects. And through competitive tender bidding procedures, public sector partners can likewise ensure that they maximise the value of each rand spent. These measures will help bridge the funding gap and facilitate a higher quantity and quality of larger-scale projects.

Finally, the risk-sharing nature of PPPs ensures that the private sector also assumes a substantial portion of the financial, technical, and operational risk involved in infrastructure projects. This means that infrastructure developers assume the responsibility and are accountable for ensuring that projects are completed on time, within budget, and according to standards set by public partners.

While the task of improving South Africa’s water infrastructure is challenging, it is certainly attainable with the right partnerships and strategies in place. By leveraging the strengths of both public and private sectors through PPPs, we can ensure a sustainable water future for South Africa.