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Uniting for water security in Johannesburg

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South Africa – Durban – 22 March 2024 – Making handy work of the “Water for Peace” theme on World Water Day yesterday at Durban NPO Green Corridors’ Green Hub at Blue Lagoon are affiliates Siphiwe Mthabela, back left, Hafuswa Williams, front left, and Nangamso Radebe, front right, from Triecomvelo ecotours, with Arved Sillinger, from Bremen, Germany, who is a volunteer at Green Corridors. During South Africa’s National Water Week, Green Corridors collaborates with many local and international organisations to connect people to the planet, spreading the word that citizens should be mindful of the role they play in being custodians of our water resources for livelihoods and, in KZN, tourism. – Picture: Shelley Kjonstad Independent Newspapers

By Anthony Kaziboni and Alesia D Ofori

“Unless we change our approach to managing this precious resource,” he warned, “the wars of the next century will be fought over water.” – Ismail Serageldin, a former World Bank Vice-President

World Water Day on March 22, 2024, was a stark reminder of the global water crisis. As an annual wake-up call, World Water Day sheds light on the global water crisis, where a staggering 2.2 billion people lack safe water. It serves as a potent reminder of the urgency to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6: ensuring water and sanitation for all by 2030.

Like World Water Day, South Africa’s National Water Month in March raises awareness about water’s role in conflict and peacebuilding. However, a crucial question remains: do these commemorative events translate awareness into concrete action on South Africa’s water crisis? Simply highlighting the issue isn’t enough; we must see if these campaigns lead to lasting changes in water management practices and infrastructure.

South Africa, in theory, takes a leading role in water rights globally. The country’s Constitution Section 27(1)(b) explicitly guarantees everyone access to “sufficient” water – the only nation in the world with such a strong provision. The Water Services Act (WSA) Section 3(1) translates this constitutional right into action, guaranteeing basic water supply, sanitation access, and a healthy environment.

This, likewise, resonates with the country’s National Development Plan (NDP), which ensures “effective management of water”, fostering a “strong economy and a healthy environment” by 2030. However, with just over five years remaining, the light at the end of the tunnel appears to be dimming.

South Africa grapples with water scarcity partly due to its naturally limited resources. With vast arid and semi-arid regions, the country is already water-stressed and highly susceptible to climate change. Only a small fraction, less than 9 percent of its annual rainfall, contributes to rivers, and an even smaller portion, under 5 percent, replenishes underground aquifers.

Rising temperatures further exacerbate this situation. Recent data shows that southern Africa, including South Africa, experienced temperatures in February between 4°C and 5°C above average, highlighting the increasing risk of heat-related water stress.

For years, cities like Johannesburg, Cape Town and Gqeberha have been grappling with growing water security concerns.

While there has been progress in South Africa regarding household access to water, with an overall increase in improved water sources, the situation is uneven across provinces, with some experiencing a decline despite rising piped water access. In 2022, roughly 46.6 percent of South African households had piped water within their dwellings.

Most had access to safe water sources (88.5 percent in 2022). On-site sources served 28.3 percent, while 14.2 percent (12.5 percent from communal taps and 1.7 percent from neighbours’ taps) depended on shared options.

A significant concern remains – 3 percent of households still lack access to safe drinking water, relying on rivers, streams, and other unsafe sources.

Further, in 2022, around one-third (34.9 percent) of South African households receiving municipal water reported experiencing water supply interruption. There is a more significant disparity in these figures. Households in Northern Cape, North West, Mpumalanga and Limpopo faced the most frequent cuts compared to Western Cape, and Gauteng residents reported the least disruptions in municipal water supply.

Despite glaring disparities that widen racial inequalities, the national and local focus on drafting water strategies and policies prioritises overarching goals over addressing the fundamental need for reliable household water security in indigent communities.

All Talk, No Water: DWS Water Bill and CoJ Water Security Strategy

The proposed Water Bill by the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) struggles to address South Africa’s water crisis. It focuses on harsher punishments like fines, which do little to help those without basic water access. This Bill misses the mark by neglecting the root cause of the problem: a broken water management system. A critique of the Bill is available here.

Despite launching its Water Security Strategy to connect to existing strategies and policies to offer an aligned approach to water security and provide a guideline towards becoming a water-secure Johannesburg by 2040, the City of Johannesburg (CoJ) still misses the mark on household water security.

Stakeholders and experts within the Johannesburg water sector have criticised the Water Security Strategy for lacking urgency and innovation in tackling the city’s water crisis. This criticism highlights potential shortcomings in the city’s water management.

Unlike most major cities, Johannesburg wasn’t built near a major water source. It relies on a complex system that pumps water from Lesotho Highlands, around 70km away.

The city has faced a stark reminder of its water vulnerability in the past few months. A system breakdown left vast swathes of the city without water for nearly two weeks. The situation became critical when Rand Water, Africa’s largest bulk water supplier, which draws from the Lesotho Highlands Project, warned Johannesburg and other significant areas that their systems were on the brink of collapse.

The future of water security in Gauteng appears even more concerning. While the Lesotho Highlands Project currently provides 60 percent of Gauteng’s water needs by transferring over 1.27 billion cubic meters annually from Lesotho, this solution may not be long-term.

Gauteng’s critical water supply system will undergo essential maintenance and repairs between October 1, 2024 and March 31, 2025. This vital work will significantly reduce available water during this period.

While Johannesburg Water has confirmed that the water crisis is out of its control, Rand Water warned Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Ekurhuleni that their system was on the brink of collapsing.

Several human-induced factors are contributing to the city’s anthropogenic water scarcity.

Corruption, Financial Mismanagement and Poor Planning

The report, Money Down the Drain: Corruption in South Africa’s Water Sector, documents financial mismanagement and corruption in the water sector, contributing to poor water service provision.

Johannesburg’s water infrastructure faces a looming crisis due to underfunding. The city requires R2 to 3 billion annually to maintain its water systems, yet only allocates half that amount (R1 billion) in its budget.

Gauteng’s water infrastructure, initially designed in the interwar years to serve the gold mining industry, now struggles to meet the demands of almost 15 million residents. This massive population increase far outstrips the system’s capacity. Upgrading only 30km of pipelines annually, instead of the necessary 200km, creates a significant maintenance backlog. Furthermore, a lack of proper oversight exacerbates the problem.

Professor Craig Sheridan, a Wits water expert, highlights the lack of investment as a key issue. Johannesburg Water’s Chief Operations Officer, Ntshavheni Mukwevho, admitted they have water but lack sufficient pressure due to ageing pipes (over 12,500km, some 70+ years old) and a R27 billion infrastructure backlog. What does this mean?

Crumbling Pipes, Chronic Leaks

Johannesburg’s water infrastructure is dilapidated, like the rest of the country. This ageing network suffers from frequent leaks and bursts, leading to vast amounts of treated water being wasted before repairs. Residents often find these repairs inadequate and short-lived, raising concerns about the quality of work. This chronic underinvestment lets maintenance needs spiral out of control.

The city’s water woes are further compounded by a lack of repair oversight and a surge in “non-revenue water” (NRW). NRW refers to treated water lost before it reaches paying customers due to leaks, unauthorised use, or billing issues.

Gauteng’s situation is particularly alarming, with NRW reaching a staggering 41.9 percent of its total water supply or 637.3 million cubic meters per year. A significant portion (33.4 percent or 507.5 million cubic meters) is lost through physical leaks. These numbers are even more concerning, given the steady rise in NRW over the past decade. Johannesburg loses over 40 percent of its treated water due to NRW, with a staggering 27.5 percent simply vanishing through leaks.

The water crisis in Johannesburg is critical. Urgent action is needed to address the city’s ageing infrastructure, improve repair quality, and tackle the growing NRW problem. Minister for Water and Sanitation Senzo Mchunu highlighted the need for significant investment in Johannesburg’s water infrastructure renewal programme.

Municipal and Household Rising Debt

South Africa’s water challenges are further complicated by a growing cycle of debt. Municipalities also owe the country’s water boards almost R18 billion. Gauteng’s main distributor has also said customers owe R16 billion in unpaid water bills.

Municipal customers’ unpaid bills create a domino effect: municipalities struggle to pay water boards, which fall behind on payments to the Department of Water and Sanitation for raw water. This financial strain hinders not only domestic water management but also international obligations. Specifically, it jeopardises South Africa’s ability to pay for the vital transboundary water it receives from Lesotho.

Human Resources Limitations

Municipal expertise in water management varies greatly, with larger metros faring better than smaller municipalities. Data from the South African Institute of Civil Engineering (SAICE) paints a concerning picture: many engineers have left South Africa. This exodus and municipalities’ failure to replace them create a critical knowledge gap in various infrastructure fields. The consequences are dire: compromised service delivery, inadequate infrastructure maintenance, and growing difficulty prioritising and managing local government functions.

CoP 4 H2O-Jozi – Communities of Practice for Water

Imagine groups of people in Johannesburg coming together – community leaders, city and government officials, engineers, researchers and academics, among others. What if they all shared a common concern and were committed to resolving it collaboratively: reducing water loss in the city? This is the idea behind Communities of Practice (CoP), introduced by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in their 1991 book Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Through collaboration, these stakeholders can exchange experiences, best practices, and innovative solutions to mitigate the water crisis and ensure a more sustainable water future for Johannesburg.

While numerous organisations address water challenges in Johannesburg, their efforts are often fragmented. The Water Crisis Committee (WCC), Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse’s WaterCAN initiative (focusing on household water access), and various community organisations all play a crucial role. Notably, WaterCAN established a water forum in late 2023. Universities like the University of Johannesburg (UJ) are also taking action. It’s From Scarcity to Security to Sovereignty, high-level engagement fostered dialogue within the water sector. Building on this, UJ is collaborating with Cranfield University to establish a Johannesburg Community of Practice for Water Security (CoP4H2O).

Dr Anthony Kaziboni is a senior researcher at the Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA), University of Johannesburg (UJ). Kaziboni writes in his personality. Dr Alesia D Ofori is a lecturer at the Centre for Water, Environment and Development (CWED), Cranfield University (CU). D Ofori writes in her personal capacity.