Opinion: Perfecting the art of water delivery for future generations

27th February 2023

Opinion: Perfecting the art of water delivery for future generations

Rand Water CE Sipho Mosai
Photo by: Creamer Media

In this article, Rand Water CE Sipho Mosai writes about water shortages and how to improve water delivery for future generations.

Water has become one of the foremost modern-day challenges in this early part of the third millennium. This is because the era of free drinking water in unlimited quantity is over. During recent decades, a combination of human demographics and human activity has in many global regions transformed water from an abundant element to a scarce resource.

The water shortages that have affected thousands of people in Gauteng are a “perfect storm” that is developing into a hurricane. Taps have run dry in several suburbs for weeks, with high-lying areas worst hit because of rolling blackouts that affect the pumping of water, major infrastructural backlogs and increased demand because of hot temperatures. Notably, water service is mostly dependent on infrastructure availability and a perfect equilibrium between water demand and the system's capacity to meet both average and peak demands.

There is an urgent need to put water higher on the country’s agenda. Various water problems are escalating at a rapid rate. 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 860 mm. It is ranked the fortieth driest country in the world.

Secondly, the management of water consumption has been poor. South Africa is a water scarce country, yet the average domestic water use is estimated at 237 litres per person per day, 64 litres higher than the international benchmark of 173 litres per person per day.

In the entire value chain, there is so much that the system or infrastructure can provide. Future water requirements by municipalities, industry, and other water consumers will affect the current and future   demand for water. Statistics South Africa's growth estimates further bolster this figure. In turn, the future needs to dictate the requirements for infrastructure upgrades and refurbishments upstream and midstream of the value.

The bulk water infrastructure midstream within the value chain is designed for average water consumption and peak water demands of about 35000 megalitres a week. What does this mean? If water demand is of typical consumption (4 400 megalitres in 2021/22), then the system can provide water with relative ease. Hence, in most instances, every household receive water without exception. If peak water usage exceeds Rand Water's purifying output, municipal water is drawn from reservoirs. The reservoirs at municipal level dries out quickly as a result of excessive use. Because Rand Water continues to pump at optimum capacity, water will continue to be delivered to low-lying areas regardless. The irregular water supply in the high-lying areas is aggravated by intermittent power outages and load shedding. Pumping and reservoir filling are impossible without a steady supply of electricity. In the event that there is no electricity to operate pumps and water usage rises to the point that reservoirs are depleted, high-lying areas will be left without water.

The final segment of value chain (downstream) lies under the purview of municipalities known as water services authority. Municipalities draw water from Rand Water's reservoirs and distribute it to individual residences and various other customers through a system of their own pipes and reservoirs.

Non-revenue water, notably physical water losses because of ageing infrastructure, is the greatest impediment that characterizes the value chain, particularly in the downstream. Municipal physical water losses range between 20% and 30% (1 000 to 1 500 million litres of water a day when Rand Water is pumping at maximum capacity). In a water-scarce nation that imports majority of its raw water, this quantity of water is enormous. With the purpose of addressing the distribution of water, local governments should make significant investments. Sadly, the sector does not spend enough in water conservation and thus demand management methods to turn the situation around as quickly as possible. The expansion of cities and towns necessitates substantial future investments to not only reduce water loss but also free up additional water to meet the water needs of future urban growth.

As water consumers, we must conserve water and change our behaviour to reflect our situation. We should resist the temptation to fill swimming pools and irrigate our lawns with potable water during periods of extreme heat. During times of high levels of load shedding and heat waves, avoiding these will considerably improve water supply for all. Secondly, local municipalities must prioritise non-revenue water, this will also aid in reducing wastage by paying for water that is not used. To maintain water supply sustainability and reliability, infrastructure upgrades and refurbishments must receive sufficient funding.

By the end of this year, Rand Water will have added 600-million litres of water per day to the system. In the next five years, Rand Water will invest R30-billion to expand its network of pipes and reservoirs. As part of this plan, Rand Water has inaugurated a 210-million-liter storage reservoir in February.

Lastly, the water and sanitation delivery model must entirely be revised in order to provide long-term and sustainable water services. Revenue generated from paying customers of water and sanitation must be ring-fenced for infrastructure operations, maintenance, renovation, and augmentation. I believe that the current structural arrangement should be revised and be replaced by new Utilities that will operate the value from abstraction to reticulation. Governance and funding mechanism can be developed to ensure that these utilities are successful and sustainable.