Smoke and flame have burst out on the streets of Braamfontein, as students clash with police and security guards in the most seismic confrontation Johannesburg has known since rebel miners squared up to the army during the 1922 Rand Rebellion—but South Africa’s greatest city faces a far greater, albeit silent threat to its survival from another quarter. Our water crisis is threatening to not only spoil the quality of life enjoyed by homeowners in established urban areas but, of far greater concern, is the impact the drought and low dam levels is having on the industry around the country.
Persistent drought occasioned by the lowest rainfall since records began in 1904 has brought dam levels across South Africa down to dangerously low levels—down by 0.5% to 51.4%, according to the Department of Water and Sanitation, compared to 70.3% at the same time last year. The Umgeni Dam system, which serves eThekwini and Msinduze, is at 45.1%, while other dams in KwaZulu-Natal are even worse off—Klipfontein is at 12.4%‚ Hluhluwe is at 17.9% and Goedertrouw is at 17.3%. The Orange River, which feeds the mighty Gariep Dam is at 57.7%, and Van Der Kloof Dam is at 61%. The Polokwane System has fallen to 32.7%.
However, it is the Vaal River System (VRS) that is the greatest cause for concern. Comprising 14 dams, the VRS, which serves mainly Gauteng‚ Sasol and Eskom, has decreased to some 51.8% overall, while the Vaal Dam itself declined to a dangerously low 28%—this when the dam should be 50% full in order to operate normally.
These numbers add up to potentially catastrophic consequences. Indeed, according to Water Affairs and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane, South Africa’s water system is in danger of a “crash”. Now, in a similar fashion to the Eskom power supply crisis, consumers are being asked to slash usage by 15% in order to relieve the overstrained system.
A first step has been drastic water restrictions. At a recent press conference, Mokonyane explained, “If we do not do those things, we will have the water system crashing. “We are asking municipalities to step in—local government is expected to enforce bylaws,” she said.
Water restrictions and penalties for irresponsible use are already in force in the cities of Tshwane‚ Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni. However‚ all three metros have failed to achieve their targets as yet.
For its part, Johannesburg Water has introduced water shedding in the Roodepoort area and is likely to follow suit in other places. In a statement, Johannesburg Water announced, “All municipalities and residents must act now or face severe water shortages. The total storage capacity of all the dams in the Integrated Vaal River System (IVRS) is 11.26 km³. The current total demand in the VRS is 3.07 km³ per annum. If the drought persists, resulting in no rain for the next two years, IVRS dams will be completely empty by July 2018.”
Residents are expected to adhere to Level 2 Water Restrictions and are prohibited from filling their swimming pools, which consume up to 56 000 litres of water—enough to cover drinking, bathing, cooking and flushing toilets for three months.
Johannesburg Water also urged businesses not to be wasteful: “Businesses that continue to use sprinklers during the day and all night long should understand when one day they wake up with no water. A day of no water can close down a business. A week of water shedding its a disaster for big businesses.”
Another measure is water throttling, set to be introduced in high-consumption areas soon. The action is justified by the inefficacy of penalties for not following restrictions. According to Professor Mike Muller of the Wits School of Governance, the process works as follows: ”When the water supply is limited‚ it can be helpful to reduce the pressure in the main pipes. Water will then come out of taps more slowly. If there are leaking pipes‚ pressure reduction also slows down water loss.”
However, water throttling is not a silver bullet: ”There are problems in a hilly town like Johannesburg because if pressure is reduced too much‚ users in high-lying areas may not receive any water. Supply may also fail to flats on the top of small blocks that do not have pumps‚” Muller pointed out.
”The best outcome would be for all Johannesburgers to use water responsibly and to make conscious efforts to reduce their use. Citizens must also help Johannesburg Water by reporting leaks as soon as they are noticed. And Johannesburg Water must ensure that these are speedily repaired.”
Chronic water shortage also poses health risks, as explained by Marco van Dijk‚ chairperson of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering’s (SAICE) Water Engineering division. The danger lies in the possibility that people in low-lying areas will drain the pipeline dry. “When the pipeline is empty‚ inside it’s a big problem. What happens now‚ if you have water on the outside of the pipeline, due to a leak or sewer line that is leaking or ground water‚ dirty water is going to get into your water pipe. Your seals that join the pipeline work well if you have pressure on the inside because it closes nice and tight. If you have an empty pipeline and there is water on the outside‚ the seal does not work well and it allows water on the outside to get into the pipeline,” he said. Ultimately, according to Van Dijk,“You can get contaminated water into the drinking water pipeline.”
A further complicating factor mentioned by Van Dijk is that great volumes of water simply disappear, through a combination of water theft within the system and chronic leakage. This is water stolen by people in the system and water that is lost through leaks.
It is estimated that 37% of South Africa’s total water supply percent leaks through the cracks on an annual basis—the equivalent of losing eight large dams of water every 12 months. The economic cost to the country amounts to R7 billion a year.
By way of response, the Department of Water launched a special youth training programme in 2015. The ”War on Water Leaks” project hopes to save water and create jobs by equipping 15 000 youths with the skills of plumbers, electricians and water monitors. Once qualified, they will be assigned posts in municipalities throughout the country—provided that the entire water system has not collapsed by then.
Tempting as it may be to lay South Africa’s collective water woes at the door of the unprecedented drought, the problem cannot be reduced to such simple terms. This, according to water expert Dr Anthony Turton, as expressed in a report by the Institute of Race Relations: “The water shortage is also an ‘induced’ one. It stems from a lack of strategic planning and the fact that poorly functioning waste-water treatment plants are spewing close on 4 billion litres of untreated or partially treated sewage into the country’s dams and rivers every day.”
Sewage spills represent the worst of the evils faced by the water sector, insists Turton. “Just a small volume of oil destroys the quality of a large volume of water, so a small source of persistent sewage has essentially the same effect,” he explained.
An extremely hazardous side-effect of sewage discharges is a marked increase in eutrophic water in dams—water with uncommonly high nutrient levels that encourage blue-green algae to grow. Also known as cyanobacteria, the algae produces microcystin. This toxin, which has a chemistry similar to cobra venom, is carcinogenic and harmful to the liver and central nervous system.
“The microcystin levels found in a number of major dams—including Hartbeespoort, Hazelmere, Midmar and the Vaal Dam—are amongst the highest ever measured in the world,” comments Turton. “Microcystin toxin levels become a concern in developed countries at far below the levels commonly found in South Africa.
“Moreover, nothing is being done here to remove the toxin. There are only two known technologies capable of neutralising microcystin, and neither is in mainstream use in any of the country’s bulk potable water treatment plants.
“Worse still, no one knows whether these technologies can, in fact, neutralise microcystin at the concentrations found in South Africa. In this regard, we are truly flying blind.”
Turton claims that Government has chosen to under-report the presence of blue-green algae rather than deal with the problem. The official view holds that a mere 5% of South Africa’s waters are threatened, but this is at variance with the findings of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), according to which dangerous levels of blue-green algae are present in two-thirds of our largest dams. If allowed to continue unchecked, this process of eutrophication could render the 38 billion cubic metres of water contained in the water system unusable.
In light of Turton’s appraisal, it is evident that as grim as Minister Mokonyane’s pronouncements may appear, they are not nearly grim enough.
Even if the drought should break, meaningful investment and considerable ingenuity will be required if South Africa’s ailing water system is to be restored to its proper function.