War on SA’s water shortage

It’s not yet quite a national disaster, but South Africa’s water shortage is dire


“Almost empty,” exclaims the Department of Water and Sanitation’s (DWS) website landing page, explaining that lower-than-normal rainfall has resulted in drought conditions being experienced across the country.

Southern and South Africa are currently in the grip of one of the strongest El Niño weather events recorded in the last fifty years. According to meteorologists, it is still expanding and strengthening since the agricultural planting seasons in 2015 and 2016.

A report from the UN World Food programme says that the current rainfall season in large areas across the Southern African Development Community (SADC), including South Africa is the driest in 35 years. The South African government has not yet declared the drought a national disaster and, instead, is dealing individually with the worst hit provinces. So far five provinces; North West Province, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, KwaZulu Natal and the Free State have been declared drought areas. The Western Cape is also asking for drought relief for farmers, as the province dries up through less than usual winter rainfalls and record high summer temperatures.

Reuters reports that Jannie de Villiers, CEO of Grain SA is urging government to declare a national disaster in order for the National Treasury to release emergency relief funds to farmers who have already suffered huge crop and stock losses due to the extreme weather conditions.

However, it is not entirely the extreme climatic conditions that are to blame. Since 2013, there have been warnings of a looming water crisis in South Africa, which has now been exacerbated by the drought.

In 1994 only 59% of the population had access to potable (drinking) water and by 2013, access to potable water had significantly increased to 95.2% of the population.

But the DWS 2013 annual report had bad news – it found that 37% of potable water was lost through leaking pipes and dripping taps. The report also noted that water demand had already overtaken supply by 60% in water infrastructure management areas and that over 30% of the country’s waste water treatment plants were in a critical condition.

The report pointed out that R293 billion was needed to be spent on water infrastructure management over the following five years, but at the time the DWS reiterated that there was no water crisis, water shortages in Gauteng and other provinces were blamed on various technical problems and electrical cable theft.

Fast-track to 2016, the water crisis is critical, but after massive intervention from citizens and businesses through social media campaigns such as #WaterDrive (Operation Hydrate), #SOS100 and private campaigners, millions of litres of drinking water, as well as tonnes of hay for stock have been delivered to communities.

A major boost

Operation Hydrate’s #WaterDrive campaign was given a major boost in January when Water Affairs Minister, Nomvula Mokonyane announced that the National Lotto will be donating R50-million towards humanitarian efforts. The funds will be used for bottled water‚ infrastructure and boreholes.

During his State of the Nation Address on 09 February, President Jacob Zuma acknowledged that five provinces are seriously affected by the drought and government is providing relief to affected communities. He thanked civil society for taking the initiative to provide water relief to communities in distress.

Zuma also stated that building water infrastructure remains critical for the economy in order to expand access to all communities and to industry.

Short and long-term projects will increase water capacity

The DWS rolled-out the first phase of the Mokolo and Crocodile Water Augmentation Project (MCWAP) in Lephalale area in Limpopo in 2015, two years behind schedule. It is now operational and has the capacity of providing 30 million cubic metres of water per annum to Eskom’s Medupi power station. MCWAP’s two-phase construction included building several large pump stations, over 170 km of pipeline and an abstraction works, which all required supplementary infrastructure.

“Raising the Clanwilliam Dam wall in the Western Cape involves raising the existing dam level by 13 metres and will result in an additional 70 million cubic metres of water a year to farmers downstream,” says Mokonyane. The dam level is critically low due to unusually dry seasonal weather, causing water shortages in the Cederberg and Matsuyama local municipalities who rely on the dam for their water.

Bigen Africa was commissioned by DWS in 2015 to supervise and manage the extension of the dam wall, the second time since the dam was built on the Olifants River in 1935. The R2 billion project is anticipated to take five years to complete.

These are just some of the major long-term water infrastructure projects, but what about short to medium-term projects?

“To curb water wastage, the DWS has begun its programme of training 15 000 young people as artisans or plumbers,” explains Mokonyane. The five-year War on Leaks training programme, inaugurated in 2015, will see plumbers, artisans and water agents trained by Rand Water visiting communities to investigate water leaks and teach people to save water. “Every citizen in South Africa needs to become much more aware of the fact that ours is a water scarce country and act accordingly by conserving water.”

In February the DWS gazetted the Draft National Sanitation Policy 2016, inviting the public and interested parties to submit their comments by 14 March. The draft sanitation policy aims to encourage the introduction of alternative and innovated sanitation technologies, improve sanitation infrastructure, to ensure sustainable service provision and to ensure equal access to decent sanitation across South Africa.

The DWS has also conducted a condition assessment audit of the municipalities who have been negatively affected by the water quality of the Vaal River system.

“Lekwa and Msukaligwa Local Municipalities were targeted in order to find long-lasting solutions to the problem of raw sewage spillages in the Vaal River,” says Mokonyane.

She explains that the department is in the process of finding ways to assist the municipalities to implement the recommendations of the audit report.

Key findings in the report relate to lack of infrastructure maintenance, lack of human capacity and waste water plants operating above their design capacity, which resulted in the deteriorating waste water quality and state of the Vaal River system, mainly due to sewage spills.

“The department is also concerned with the poor performance of some municipalities in terms of the Green Drop report, which is one of the main reasons for the interventions into the municipalities that negatively affect the water quality in the sources such as rivers, streams and dams.”

In 2011, in the run-up to the local government elections the cleanliness of the country’s water prompted the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) to launch a nationwide investigation into the state of the water at municipalities.

Nationally the SAHRC found there was progress, but at regional level water management was critical. It found that 9% of municipalities were at “acute risk of disease outbreak, while another 38% were high risk, with the potential of deteriorating into a crisis.

Government has a benchmark for international standards, the Blue Drop certification, which is supposed to implemented at all municipalities to monitor the quality of potable water.

The Steve Tshwete Local Municipality, one of the few municipalities with a consistent clean audit and the top performing municipality in Mpumalanga, continues to retain its Blue Drop status. In 2014 the municipality attained a score of 97% with five of its systems attaining Blue Drop certification. The systems that attained Blue Drop certification are Hendrina, Middelburg and Mhluzi, the Komati power station, Arnot and Rietkuil power stations and Hendrina Pullenshope power station.

“The Blue Drop certification programme allows for proactive management and regulation of drinking water quality management based on legislated norms and standards, as well as international best practice,” Mokonyane says, adding that this process involves the auditing of municipal water supply systems based on defined assessment criteria per audit cycle.

According to Mokonyane, 40% of the country’s water supply is lost to leaks, which translates into annual losses of about R7 billion.

“Some municipalities go beyond 40% and that 40% loss could have helped us through this drought. That is why the department has instigated the No Drop project that seeks to harvest that 40% by declaring a ‘war on leaks.’”

Another project being rolled out to communities includes the Drop the Block, which involves dropping a brick into a toilet cistern in order to save two litres of water per flush.

“Toilet cisterns are universally designed to hold nine litres of water, but you don’t need to use that amount of to get rid of your waste,” says Mokonyane.

Alternative water supplies

According to the DWS about 300 communities in South Africa rely entirely on groundwater from springs and boreholes, as it is too expensive to build the infrastructure to reach these areas.

Currently there is no comprehensive mapping of groundwater resources in South Africa, which requires geological exploration of possible locations where water flows along underground fault lines and pools.

Dr Shafick Adams of the Water Research Commission (WRC) who has researched groundwater resources says the country has about 10 million cubic metres of renewable groundwater. “In an ordinary drought, this level drops to seven million, but this extreme drought has dropped water reserves to such a low level that nobody knows how much is left.”

Despite these limitations, the DWS has committed to building more boreholes and infrastructure to communities such as the people of Jericho village, many of whom have had to buy water or rely on neighbours with boreholes.

Magalies Water, in conjunction with Madibeng Municipality have started phase two of the R15 million project, which will put in pipelines and reticulation, as well as equipping the village with three new boreholes to add to the five functional boreholes. These will be connected until the end of April to the existing network and into the main reservoir, which will provide many more people in the area with water.

Could desalinating sea water save South Africa from drought situations?

Countries that use desalinated water to augment their drinking water supplies include the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Australia. But the DWS say that putting in desalination plants that extract salt out of seawater to make it drinkable, is simply too expensive.

“You may ask why we can’t produce fresh water from sea water when we suffer from drought in South Africa? The answer is quite simple, the process is expensive and therefore will not be sustainable, as consumers would spend a lot more for it than from water from rivers and dams. Intense research and scientific breakthrough has to be reached in order to bring the process to an affordable amount, “comments Mokonyane.

She adds that although the current situation does not look bright, the future is not yet bleak as there is room for innovation and other alternative ways of harnessing water. “The continual conservation of water by communities plays an important role in maintaining current reserves and everyone should have their local municipalities’ numbers on speed dial so that leaks can be reported as soon as possible to prohibit massive water loss. Working together we can save so much more water.”

Mokonyane says that one should not waste a crisis, as people do not take issues around water conservation, recycling of water and water harvesting seriously enough until there is a drought and water is scarce. “These are messages we’ve been preaching for a very long time but only when there is a real scarcity of water, will people hear the message.”

She explains that South Africa has a memorandum of understanding with the Netherlands around water issues, with workshops taking place at municipal level sharing skills between the two countries.

“Within six months of the drought starting in KwaZulu-Natal in 2014, we were discussing and putting out ideas of what technology we can use for mitigating the drought.”

Mokonyane says that the department would also like to have a more aggressive role around rainwater harvesting issues. “Taking into consideration that many of our rivers are shared water sources, one would have to enter into a relationship that is mutually beneficial to one’s neighbours and then be able to actually conserve the water source, making sure that it doesn’t get degraded.”

Fast-tacking green technologies

Innovation and green technologies need to be fast-tracked in order to reduce the amount of water usage in South Africa. The African Utility Week and Clean Power Africa conference and trade show, taking place in Cape Town in May will address some of these issues. Water resource management is high on the agenda of this year’s conference where 6 000 engineers, stakeholders and innovators from around the world will discuss the energy and water crisis facing the continent.

The World Bank will also report back on the progress of its Thirsty Energy Initiative launched in 2014. The initiative promotes sustainable water and energy resource management with global partners and governments.

“We are working in South Africa, China and Morocco to integrate water constraints into the energy sector and better address water and energy challenges to ensure sustainable development of energy resources,” explains senior economist Dr Diego J. Rodriguez. “Our work in South Africa incorporated water restrictions into an existing energy model and examined the trade-offs with other water users.”

Rodriguez adds that many interesting results were revealed, for example that once the true costs of water supply are incorporated into the energy model, the model chooses dry cooling for most coal power plants.

“Thus, dry cooling makes economic sense in South Africa even if it decreases the efficiency of the power plant. Bringing the true costs of supplying water to the sector increases the costs of the system.”

Other water saving innovations include the Water Research Council’s (WRC) funding of a micro-flush toilet initiative called the ‘Arumloo’.

Researcher Jonny Harris who is responsible for the toilet’s designs says the objective of the micro-loo is to reduce the amount of water needed for flushing.

“The final prototype of the Arumloo toilet, named that because its design mimics water movement in an arum lily, will use between 1 - 2.5 litres of water per flush, using a dual-flush mechanism.

The prototype has been tested and has passed the international MaP tests used for toilets. “The introduction of the micro-flush/Arumloo toilet will go far in tackling water scarcity faced globally in drought areas,” adds Jay Bhagwan, WRC executive manager for water use and waste management.

South Africa could also look to other regions and countries with similar climates and drought conditions such as California, in the United States where extreme, debilitating drought conditions have forced authorities to take action to drought-protect themselves.

San Diego in southern California has a similar climate to the drier parts of the Cape and in 2014 its city council unanimously agreed to become more water efficient, approving long-term plans to recycle the city’s sewerage into potable drinking water, using cutting-edge scientific techniques. The project called Pure Water San Diego will see the building of three large waste recycling plants that are expected to provide a third of the city’s potable water needs by 2035.

“We need to be self-sufficient when it comes to our water supply. Although the cost of recycled, purified water is currently higher than that of imported water, it is widely expected to be reversed in the longer term,” says councillor Scott Sherman.

He adds that by completely recycling waste water, there will be less discharge into the ocean, thus saving the city billions of dollars upgrading the effluent treatment plant.

Environmental groups also support the project and agree that the project will mean less sewage poisoning the ocean and less reliance on desalination plants that are also harmful to the environment.

Whatever public and private sector plans are put in place to ensure water security in the short and long term, the water crisis has once again revealed South Africa’s spirit of community and Ubuntu as millions of litres of potable water continue to be collected and transported daily to the worst effected regions.

Operation Hydrate, which started its campaign on 04 January 2016, is currently the highest citizen water drive in the country. At the end of January, the campaign generated R61 million during its water drive at the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF).

The NMF and major organisations generously donated funds to purchase drinking water for distribution, while other businesses bought bottled water in bulk to distribute locally for their own water drives.

Summing it up, Mokonyane says: ”Water problems affect everyone and this project serves as a tool to unify our diverse nation through a good cause.”

Cathy Dippnall

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